Friday, October 18, 2019

Black and Read All Over

It didn't take long for the lingering summer-fall warm-front to bid us adieu and usher in the dreaded fall-winter chill. For some, this signals the start of the infamous "cuffing season." Realistically, for most of us, it signals thick socks, Snuggie blankets, tea, and a few good books. Now I must admit, thanks to a hectic schedule, my best (late) discovery or newest joy rather has been audiobooks via the Audible platform. At $15, you have a choice of one downloadable book per month plus a few free Audible-choice selections. Yet what makes the offer even sweeter: if you don't choose a selection for the month, the credit simple rolls over, in which you can amass a sizable number of credits in short amount of time. But enough on Audible. Instead, let's get into a few new (and fairly new) fiction and autobiographical releases by African-American authors sure to make you reflect, weep, and laugh your way through the cold, long winter.

The Mother of Black Hollywood by Jenifer Lewis (Memoir - 2017)

If you don't know the name Jenifer Lewis then you probably should familiarize yourself with a few of her more than 300 appearances in film and television from Sister Act to What's Love Got to Do With It to her current starring role in ABC's "black'ish" first. Reason being, the journey Lewis takes readers on from her difficult childhood in Missouri to her years on Broadway and in Hollywood all the while navigating an undiagnosed mental illness and sex addiction as well as the many, many, highs, lows (and MEN) that came with her stardom, will not only make you laugh, holla, and weep, but will make you appreciate this Black Icon even more. Lewis' is both unapologetic and candid about a life well lived while ensuring readers she's only just getting started. As one review noted, 'Mother' is written with no-holds-barred honesty and filled with insights gained through a unique life that offers a universal message: "Love yourself so that love will not be a stranger when it comes."

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Fiction - 2018) 

Shout out to my cousin who gifted me this novel in hardback form which, ironically, led to my discovery of Audible (in trying to keep up with her reading speed for our unofficial book club of two). The New York Times Bestseller, which also had the distinction of being Oprah's 2018 Bookclub Selection, tells the story of newlywed artist Celestial and young executive Roy settling into their new life together, when it is suddenly torn apart when Roy is arrested and sentenced to twelve years for a crime he did not commit. Struggling to navigate the unexpected circumstances, Celestial finds herself taking comfort in Andre, her childhood friend and best man at her wedding, while Roy grapples with life on the inside as well as being anxious about the one on the outside that's slowly slipping from his grasp. However, when Roy's conviction is suddenly overturned after five years, he returns to Atlanta to see if what he left behind still remains or if he must begin life anew. Jones' novel will elicit a plethora of emotions as readers may struggle--and at times grow downright frustrated--at some of the decisions of both Celestial and Roy, but what the novel best achieves is forcing readers to consider what would need to be done if walking in either pair of uncomfortable shoes.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon (Memoir - 2018)

Lauded as the 2018 Audible Audiobook of the Year, "Heavy" is an eloquently written, deep dive into African-American writer, editor, and professor, Kiese Laymon's complex life growing up an obstinate black son to a complicated yet brilliant black mother in Jackson, Mississippi to his rise as a tenured professor of creative writing at Vassar College. In between, Laymon chronicles his early experiences of sexual violence to his suspension from college to his trek to New York as a young academic, while navigating a never-ending battle with body acceptance leading to lifelong struggles with both anorexia and obesity as well as sex and gambling addiction. One review notes, "By attempting to name secrets and lies he and his mother spent a lifetime avoiding, Laymon asks himself, his mother, his nation, and us to confront the terrifying possibility that few in this nation actually know how to responsibly love, and even fewer want to live under the weight of actually becoming free." Feeling as if I were holding my breath throughout the entire memoir, it was not lost on me that "Heavy" never provided a moment to fully exhale, thus driving home Laymon's message that to comfortably breathe while being black in America is a near impossibility.

What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker by Damon Young (Memoir/Collection of Essays - 2019)

Before Damon Young even dropped his debut novel, I was sold on the book for both the title alone and the fact that I have been a longtime fan of his humorous essays courtesy of his website "Very Smart Brothers" shared with equally funny co-founder and friend Panama Jackson. However, I did not expect to have as many laugh-out-loud, talk-to-myself moments of the "Damon, you a whole fool for that" variety. As noted in a review of the book, "The memoir chronicles Young's efforts to survive while battling and making sense of the various neuroses his country has given him. It's a condition that's sometimes stretched to absurd limits of creating the farce where, as a teen, he wished for a white person to call him a racial slur just so he could fight him and have a great story about it; and generating the surreality of watching gentrification transform his Pittsburgh neighborhood from predominantly black to "Portlandia...but with pierogies." However, the absurdity of Young's tales does lend itself to darker moments of his life from his father's inability to hold a job thus placing the family on a long journey toward financial freedom that was never fully realized to coping with the loss of his mother far earlier than he expected. Of all of the books I read, umm, err, listened to recently, I will admit Young's is the one I recommended most to friends, in which is wasn't long before I'd get a phone call sharing my same sentiment: "This guy's a whole fool"...and yet brilliant all at the same time.

Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem by Daniel R. Day (Memoir - 2019)

If you call yourself a fashionista or style guru yet don't know the name Dapper Dan, your credibility is mad questionable. The Harlem legend, icon, and designer put down his tailoring tools and picked up a pen to write his first tell-all of his days pioneering high-end streetwear in the 1980s, remixing luxury-brand logos into his own creative designs that would find their way on the backs and feets of black America's most popular artists, entertainers, and athletes from Salt-N-Pepa, Big Daddy Kane, and Jay-Z to Mike Tyson and Naomi Campbell. However, before Dan reinvented haute couture, his journey included that of a boy with holes in his shoes, to a teen who daringly gambled drug dealers out of their money, to a young man in a prison cell who rediscovered his self in books. Fashion icon and Vogue contributing editor Andre' Leon Talley stated, "What James Baldwin is to American literature, Dapper Dan is to American fashion. He is the ultimate success saga...he is pure American style." Here's hoping that Snuggie you wrap up in while reading this poignant memoir is as bonafide and blinged out as Dan would have it be. Bonus for audiobook readers: Dan, himself, provides the narration for the introduction of the book with the remainder of the book narrated in its entirety by actor Omari Hardwick.

 Happy reading and cocoa with marshmallows toasts to you!

Source: Amazon
Photo Credits: N/A

Monday, May 27, 2019

Cinematic Summer Sensations On the Horizon

It's Memorial Day--the unofficial start of summer--and there's no better time than the present to highlight this summer's cinematic gems heading our way by us and/or starring us. Whether the horror genre is your thang or it's 70s blaxploitation (reboot) flicks that's your groove, there will be a little something for everyone coming to a theater near you offering the perfect retreat from the summer heat yet setting the screen on fire all the same. Take note, mark the dates, and get ready to be entertained!

Ma - May 31st 

Academy-award winner Octavia Spencer has made us laugh and cry, but her starring role in her first spine-tingling horror thriller will be sure to make us scream! Spencer plays the role of Ma, a lonely middle-aged woman who befriends a group of teenagers and lets them party in her basement. What begins as the time of their lives slowly turns into the teens' worst nightmare as Ma's friendship with her new "friends" morphs into a deadly obsession instead. Directed by Tate Taylor and co-starring Juliette Lewis and Luke Evans, Ma is noted as the first horror movie to feature a female, black lead. See trailer here.

The Secret Life of Pets 2 - June 7th

You won't be able to physically recognize comedian Kevin Hart as Snowball--fierce white rabbit and former flushed pet--in one of the summer's most anticipated animated sequels, but his voice and, of course, humor is undeniable. Hart and all of his furry co-stars are back in the Secret Life of Pets 2, wrecking havoc yet somehow saving the day.  Terrier Max (Patton Oswalt) faces some major changes after his owner gets married and has a child creating new fears for Max's security. On a family trip to the countryside, Max meets a farm dog named Rooster, and both attempt to overcome his fears. Meanwhile, Gidget tries to rescue Max's favorite toy from a cat-packed apartment, and Snowball sets on a mission to free a white tiger named Hu from a circus. Hart again team's up with his co-star Tiffany Haddish from last summer's comedy Night School, when she stars in Pets as Daisy, a keep-it-real Shih Tzu. See trailer here.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco - June 7th

Take a heartfelt, cinematic journey through San Francisco, when the city is used as the backdrop for a passionate and painful conversation about the impact of gentrification in Joe Tablot's directorial debut. Last Black Man, which stars Tichina Arnold, Danny Glover, and Mike Epps, centers on the efforts of an African-American man, Jimmie, trying to reclaim his childhood home, a Victorian house in the Fillmore District built by his grandfather. Jimmie Fails plays himself in the film, partly based on his life, and which won the Special Jury Prize for Creative Collaboration at the Sundance Film Festival. See trailer here.

Shaft - June 14th

Shaft's Richard Roundtree is still a "bad mother shut your mouth" and he's back this summer kickin' more butt alongside his nephew John Shaft II (Samuel L. Jackson) and John "JJ" Shaft Jr. (Jessie Usher). JJ, now an FBI agent and cybersecurity expert, teams up with his dad and uncle to solve the mystery of the death of his best friend who dies under suspicious circumstances. Uncle, father, and son take to the streets of Harlem's underworld to solve the crime and shake Uptown all the way up as only they can. Directed by Tim Story, and written by Alex Barnow and Kenya Barris of "black'ish" fame, Shaft also stars Regina Hall, Method Man, and Alexandra Shipp. See trailer here.

Emanuel - June 17th and 19th

Showing for two nights only--commencing on the fourth anniversary of the tragic mass shooting with an encore showing on Juneteenth--is the documentary Emanuel. Emanuel features survivors and family members of victims recounting the events that led up to and during the June 17, 2015 Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, committed by a white supremacist who walked into the church's bible study and gunned down nine African Americans. Produced by Stephen Curry, Mariska Hargitay, Viola Davis, and Mike Wildt, Emanuel is directed by Brian Ivie and will also be available on streaming platforms in September 2019. See trailer here.

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am - June 21st

If documentaries more your soul, there will not be a more intriguing subject to embrace this summer than Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, the documentary will focus on the 87 years young literary giant's career, highly acclaimed novels, and life through personal reflection and the reflections of close colleagues and friends including poet Sonia Sanchez and media mogul Oprah Winfrey. See trailer here.

Brian Banks - August 9th

This August, real life takes its riveting place on the big screen with Brian Banks. The movie tells the true story of Brian Banks, an all-American high school football star whose life unravels when he's wrongly convicted of a crime he didn't commit. Despite a lack of evidence, Banks becomes a victim of the broken justice system and is sentenced to a decade of prison and probation. However, with the legal support of Justin Brooks and the California Innocence Project, Banks fights to reclaim his life and make his dreams of playing in the NFL a reality. Directed by Tom Shadyac, the film stars Aldis Hodge and Greg Kinnear. See trailer here.

The Kitchen - August 9th

Can you ever get enough of funny girl Tiffany Haddish? If the answer is no, you're in luck. In August, Haddish tries out her dramatic acting chops when she teams up alongside Melissa McCarthy and Elisabeth Moss as three 1978 Hell’s Kitchen housewives whose mobster husbands are sent to prison by the FBI.  Left without anything, the three ladies take the Irish mafia’s matters into their own hands to keep business afloat, proving surprisingly adept at everything from running rackets to bringing down the competition. Directed by Andrea Berloff, who co-wrote "Straight Outta Compton," the Kitchen also stars rapper/actor Common. See trailer here.

Hustlers - September 13th

Closing out the summer on a hot note in every sense of the word is Hustlers. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Cardi B, Lizzo, and Keke Palmer, Hustlers follows a crew of savvy former strip club employees who band together to turn the tables on their Wall Street clients. Lopez plays the ringleader to the group of women who take their plans of getting what they think they deserve to the next level. Hustlers also stars Julia Stles, Lili Reinhart, and Constance Wu. See trailer here.

That's it--for now--folks. Have a Happy Memorial Day and a sensational movie-watching summer!

Photo credits: N/A
Sources: Movie Insider; YouTube; Wikipedia

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Great Comeback: From the Holy Land to Hip Hop

On this 11th day of April, as those in the hip hop community and beyond, celebrate the life of rapper, entrepreneur, and business man, Ermias Joseph Asghedom, professionally known as Nipsey Hussle, I must be honest in admitting though a fan of the music genre, I didn't know Nipsey's music or much about the now legendary man behind the moniker. As is often (and unfortunately) the case, our true greatness is elevated by and often not recognized until death, as is reflective of the accolades, tributes, citations, and celebrations given in Nipsey's honor from those who lived on his block to those in the highest offices (most notably Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.) commemoration of him on the House floor and of President Barack Obama's letter of condolences read at Nipsey's homegoing services).

Photo Credit: Semmi W
It was without question that the late rapper--though on earth a mere 33 years--had done what many from any walk of life, most notably, the inner city, struggle to do: turn a bleak nothing into a great something. More explicitly, to take street knowledge and transform it into a knowledge of economic empowerment and ownership that both changed his life and the lives of those in his community through the creation of businesses and thus jobs, green space, real estate, and countless other ventures with a projected value of over $210 million. However, I still felt only a distant adjacency to the impact Nipsey made, having no real awareness of his works or his words. Yet, driving from a conference in the Ohio Valley over the weekend, I desperately searched for a radio station in range playing anything to my liking to make the trek from the Valley to the airport an easier one. My search landed me on Magic 95.5 and the Straight Talk Live with Khari Enaharo show. It would be no surprise to me that the show, which focuses on the economic and political issues that impact the African-American community, would open in homage to Nipsey.

Yet, what gave me considerable food for thought were some lyrics from one of Nipsey's tracks "Bigger Than Life" that Enharo recited: But I don’t want no help, just let me suffer through this/The world would not know Jesus Christ if there was never Judas. Whether the world would have known Jesus or not had it not been for his conspirator can be debated, but what is both very prolific and an appropriate reflection during this Resurrection season, is that Judas indeed served as the catalyst that caused the set back for the set up that led way to Christ's great comeback, both literally and figuratively. In layman's terms--and what Nipsey's lyrics reminded me--is that our disappointments, discouragements, struggles--and even our enemies--can be used to fuel our greatest victories.

NBA veteran Kobe Bryant once said, "Everything negative - pressure, challenges - is all an opportunity for me to rise." Taking it a step further, how we view those challenges determines whether we'll settle in our circumstances or see them as stepping stones toward our greatness. My mother often said, "In every life some rain must fall" but she also reminded me that every day was a new day to do better; be better; start again. To grow; to learn. To fall; to rise; to reclaim. Thus, as we celebrate the life of Nipsey--and the many lives of those living or who have passed, whose demonstration of perseverance, change, and re-birth despite challenges, inspire us to keep going, may we be reminded of Paul's words in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 "We are pressured in every way but not crushed; we are perplexed but not in despair, we are persecuted but not abandoned; we are struck down but not destroyed...."

In the memory of those who rose from the ashes of their own circumstances to create a place of promise and prosperity for themselves and others, and as we "run our own marathons," may we always be motivated to be better and do better in spite of.

Rest in peace, Nip. Happy Easter, everyone.

Addition photo credits: N/A

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A "Cool" Piece of Black History

Me with a fellow reveler
Of the many fond memories 2018 left me with, one that I didn't anticipate was the excitement I gained from being swept up in Caps Fever. When the Washington Capitals hockey team forged a clear path toward clinching its first ever Stanley Cup win in franchise history, it didn't take long for Washingtonians to get on board the Celebration Train--yours included--in what we hoped would be an energy that would transform all of the city's sporting teams into something that would give us long-dreamed of bragging rights. What Caps Fever also did was bring everyone together (if only for a few weeks) regardless of age, race, or socioeconomic status. When bar and restaurant tables were full, quick friendships formed allowing extra space to be made for stray chairs to join in the commune. Fans bought drinks for strangers; fist bumps were aplenty; and high fives were exchanged as passing fans hopped bars along Chinatown's 7th Street stretch, that was blocked off for those watching all of the action taking place inside Capital One Arena via jumbotrons.

Devante Smith-Pelly
To say it was a period of DC pride would be accurate. To say it also was a moment of African-American pride due to one of the leading scorers on the Caps team being Devante Smith-Pelly--a 26-year-old Black Canadian power forward--would be an understatement. (Note: The Capitals second black player currently on the roster is Madison Bowey). Despite the Capitals having actually been among the most diverse in the league, with eleven black players playing a game for the team since 1974, racism surrounding black hockey players in general is both not uncommon nor a thing of the past. In fact, in February 2018, a Capitals game against the Chicago Blackhawks found Smith-Pelly at the center of racial taunts, leading to four fans being ejected from the arena and the Capitals issuing a public statement on the matter. "This has happened [to me] in hockey before," Smith-Pelly said. "It's disgusting, that in 2018 we're still talking about the same thing, over and over. It's sad that athletes like myself, 30, 40 years ago were standing in the same place." (Source: The Washington Post).

Even sadder is the long-held belief that hockey is a "white sport" in which blacks do not and should not belong when, in fact, at the foundation of hockey history are black players. Hence why it felt appropriate that for Black History Month and in February, which the National Hockey League has deemed "Hockey is for Everyone" month, that I spotlight a group of pioneers in the sport of hockey: the Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes.

Coloured Hockey League players
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia: The Coloured Hockey League of the Maritimes (CHL) was an all-Black men's hockey league founded in 1895 in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Organized by Black Baptists and Black intellectuals, the league was designed as a way to attract young Black men to Sunday worship with the promise of a recreational hockey match between rival churches following religious services. Later, with the influence of the Black Nationalism Movement of the period — and with rising interest in the sport of hockey — the league came to be seen as a potential driving force for the equality of Black Canadians. By the early 20th century, the CHL had expanded from a humble three-team league in 1895 — which included its maiden club, the Dartmouth Jubilees — to involve newly formed regional challengers. Though the CHL would see its popularity grow--with game attendance bypassing that of its white counterparts' games--it would ultimately face its own eradication when racism in the form of a proposed railroad expansion that would adversely affect the black community in the north-end of Halifax caused black residents and white city officials to be at odds. During the legal battle, some rink owners refused to rent out their hockey rinks to the league or to any Black teams. Other rink owners agreed to only do so in late March when the natural ice surface was already beginning to melt. Local newspaper coverage of the league also disappeared virtually overnight, with only one article penned between 1905-06. With a poor playing surface slowing the game and no means of promotion, the league was forced to move back onto the local ponds, effectively killing the CHL as an economic and social Black movement. The last recorded newspaper account of the league during this era appeared in 1911. (The CHL's full history can be read here).

Wilie Eldon O'Ree
The National Hockey League eventually would organize in Canada in 1917 but would not expand to the United States until 1924. However, despite the impact of the CHL, it would not be until 1958 that Black-Canadian professional hockey player Willie Eldon O'Ree would become the first black player in the NHL, thus linking Black-Canadian and African-American sports history forever. O'Ree played as a winger for the Boston Bruins and was often referred to as the "Jackie Robinson of ice hockey" due to breaking the black color barrier in the sport. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November 2018.

J.T. Brown of the Tampa Bay Lightning
There's no arguing that hockey will always be viewed as a "white sport," due to the limited amount of players of color it boasts, as well as those who will always question our place in the sport's history altogether. However, thanks to the pioneers of the Coloured Hockey League that would influence the likes of Willie O'Ree and ultimately lead to the birth of present day hockey greats like Smith-Pelly and Bowey, we can agree with the National Hockey League's mantra that "hockey is for everyone" while raising a hockey stick proudly in the air alongside a power fist.

Photo Credits: N/A
Sources: The Washington Post, the Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia