On Ferguson, Cosby, and what ‘racial progress’ really means.
“My Vassar College Faculty ID affords me free smoothies, free printing paper, paid leave, and access to one of the most beautiful libraries on Earth. It guarantees that I have really good health care and more disposable income than anyone in my Mississippi family. But way more than I want to admit, I’m wondering what price we pay for these kinds of ID’s, and what that price has to do with the extrajudicial disciplining and killing of young black human beings.”
On an African-American entrepreneur and race in Silicon Valley.
Vivien Thomas was paid a janitor’s wage, never went to college, and still became a legend in the field of heart surgery.
“I am having a moment, but I only want more. I need more. I cannot merely be good enough because I am chased by the pernicious whispers that I might only be ‘good enough for a black woman.’”
Current personal problems are tied to racial issues from years past.
"Helen Conley knew this story: When Maxwell Conley was sixteen and in high school, with a bad attitude like many of us have, two young members of the Black Panther Party saved his life. It happened because a recent veteran of the war in Vietnam woke up one morning believing he was still in the jungle. Adrenaline began pumping through his body at impressive levels. He didn't have a gun, but he found an oak baseball bat in the alley behind his mother's apartment building. He laced up his combat boots. He stormed down the street until he came to the high school. He kicked open the doors of the school, and came through the hallway breathing hard, fists clenched around the bat. It was seventh period. The hallway was quiet. Around the corner came Maxwell Conley, cutting class as was his custom. He was not sober. He was wondering why Kay Svenson wouldn't pay attention to him in art class. He was admiring his long curly hair in the reflection of the fire extinguisher case mounted on the wall. His Converse sneakers flapped open and his unwashed sock came through. The Vietnam veteran, only a few years older than Maxwell Conley, met him in the hallway, and wasted no time."
On learning a new language, a new culture, and why “it must never be concluded that an urge toward the cosmopolitan, toward true education, will make people stop hitting you.”
On the anger that led to the Watts Riots of 1965, the mistakes made during those six days in August, and how little changed afterward.
Two days in crisis.
At that moment, I didn’t feel like a journalist. There was nothing about this event that I felt the need to chronicle. There was no time to find out what the bombs actually were and what was actually coming out of the guns and what type of gas was coming out of the canisters. In this moment, there was nothing I felt the need to broadcast to the world. I didn’t even have the desire to communicate my safety or lack thereof.
I was just a black man in Ferguson.
How the GOP took control of state politics in Alabama, leaving black lawmakers — and their constituents — powerless.
“We are invited to listen, but never to truly join the narrative, for to speak as the slave would, to say that we are as happy for the Civil War as most Americans are for the Revolutionary War, is to rupture the narrative.”
"Until we reckon with our compounding moral debts, America will never be whole."
On police brutality in New York and the race riots of 1964.
Sixty years after Brown v. Board of Education, Southern schools have been resegregated.
A driver and passenger engage in uneasy political and social discourse.
"Darshan could all too easily picture Malik at prayer while on the job. He saw every detail--head bowed, eyed shut, both hands clutching the wheel as a laundry list of requests was whispered towards heaven: a new carburetor for the engine, a new dress for the wife, new sneakers for the children. Each and every petty need enunciated like a brave but modest child, the requests a thing of beauty in their humility, a delicate song of worship and desire that would only come to an end when Malik veered slightly into the opposing lane and plowed directly into the headlights of an oncoming sixteen-wheeler."
“Since we live in an age in which silence is not only criminal but suicidal, I have been making as much noise as I can…”
A case for why race has been the real story of the Obama presidency all along.
The stories of the 109 black men who have played quarterback in the NFL, from Fritz Pollard to Russell Wilson.
A young man's story of sexual yearning and a looming military obligation; slightly NSFW.
"And there was nothing I could do about it. I mean, I couldn’t say anything bad about Betty. She was my very best, and only, hope of leaving the ranks of the aging virgins before I joined the ranks of the Air Force."
This year's National Book Award winner looks at the life of a preacher's son in the Kansas Territory.
"Now, it's true there was a movement in town to hang my Pa, on account of his getting filled with the Holy Ghost and throwing hisself at the flood of westward pioneers who stopped to lay in supplies at Dutch Henry'sspeculators, trappers, children, merchants, Mormons, even white women. Them poor settlers had enough to worry 'bout what with rattlers popping up from the floorboards and breechloaders that fired for nothing and building chimneys the wrong way that choked 'em to death, without having to fret 'bout a Negro flinging hisself at them in the name of our Great Redeemer Who Wore the Crown. In fact, by the time I was ten years old in 1856, there was open talk in town of blowing Pa's brains out."
Notes from a Black Panther fundraiser on Park Avenue.
An oral history of a murdered prep basketball star.
"All I can think is how narrow the drive-through is and how it's full of exhaust and grease and the vent where the air blows out and how they couldn't move, couldn't go backward or forward 'cause there were five LAPD cars and how Tenerife must have been trying to call me. Trying. I just took two more. I know I had some wine. I don't care."
A high school runner is torn between championship meets and quality time with his drunk, racist father.
"It’s five thirty. Mom called Dad, but he’s not home. Must be on his way, she says. I nod. We’ve made this exchange a hundred times. I’m wearing a new camouflage t-shirt from the Army-Navy Surplus outlet. Mom bought it. You look like a little soldier, she says. I made her buy face paint too, but I’m saving that for the woods."
How a network of evangelical Christian crisis pregnancy centers turned the complex reality behind black abortion rates into a single, fictional story.
Why our old narratives about race and culture “just don’t fit anymore.”
“His seeming ease belies the anxiety and emotion that advisers say he brings to his historic position: pride in what he has accomplished, determination to acquit himself well and intense frustration.”
The false promise and double standard of integration in the Obama era.
On the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March.
An armchair astronaut attempts to become the first black man to walk on the moon.
"The robot had this fold-down flap on its backside and Wesley sat there, buckled in, and told us he and the robot were going to outer space. There were fuses attached to the thing's feet and we stood back as he lit them like Wile E. Coyote. Well, that crazy robot went up all right—right up in flames! And we all about fell on our faces laughing, Wesley loudest of all."
This isn't an essay or simply a woe-is-we narrative about how hard it is to be a black boy in America. This is a lame attempt at remembering the contours of slow death and life in America for one black American teenager under Central Mississippi skies. I wish I could get my Yoda on right now and surmise all this shit into a clean sociopolitical pull-quote that shows supreme knowledge and absolute emotional transformation, but I don't want to lie.
On life in Los Angeles, and the specter of a second riot.
The playground, the Ivy League, the triangle offense, and how we dreamed up a “black basketball” and “white basketball.”
Scenes of a crumbling relationship between a black woman and a Jewish man.
"You know what I mean? I was nineteen and crazy back then. I'd met this Jewish guy with this really Jewish name: Gideon. He had hair like an Afro wig and a nervous smile that kept unfolding quickly, like origami. He was one of those white guys who had a thing for black women, but he'd apparently been too afraid to ask out anyone, until he met me."
On the enduring political influence and entrenched racism of the Greek system at the University of Alabama.
A destitute seamstress embarks on an act goodwill.
"As bare and comfortless as the room was Miss Sophie's life. She rented these four walls from an unkempt little Creole woman, whose progeny seemed like the promised offspring of Abraham. She scarcely kept the flickering life in her pale little body by the unceasing toil of a pair of bony hands, stitching, stitching, ceaselessly, wearingly, on the bands and pockets of trousers. It was her bread, this monotonous, unending work; and though whole days and nights constant labour brought but the most meagre recompense, it was her only hope of life."
At a party, two black cousins confront each other on personal identities, class status, and honesty.
"Francis had blown through a trust the size of Connecticut to establish his career as a rapper. And from what had been rumored, paid out hush money and child support to women across the Northeast. My cousin the genius. I couldn’t believe how much Suze admired him. Despite my repeated warnings about his true character, Suze still believes that Francis is a role model the poor can look up to, that he gives hope to the less fortunate. In her attempts to win me over, she even pointed out that Francis’ rapping name was actually a clever bastardization of phlogiston: an archaic, imaginary substance people once believed responsible for making things burn."
A sample from Colson Whitehead's classic debut novel about clashing groups of elevator inspectors.
"The man's lips arch up towards his nose and Lila Mae understands that he's never seen an elevator inspector like her before. Lila Mae has pinpointed a spot as the locus of metropolitan disaffection. A zero-point. It is situated in the heart of the city, on a streetcorner that clots with busy, milling citizens during the day and empties completely at night except for prostitutes and lost encyclopedia salesmen."
A glimpse into the life and death of a soldier who committed suicide while on duty in Afghanistan:
The Army recently announced that it was charging eight soldiers — an officer and seven enlisted men — in connection with Danny Chen’s death. Five of the eight have been charged with involuntary manslaughter and negligent homicide, and the coming court-martial promises a fuller picture of the harrowing abuse Chen endured. But even the basic details are enough to terrify: What could be worse than being stuck at a remote outpost, in the middle of a combat zone, tormented by your superiors, the very same people who are supposed to be looking out for you? And why did a nice, smart kid from Chinatown, who’d always shied from conflict and confrontation, seek out an environment ruled by the laws of aggression?
Karen refugees from Burma--a mother and small child--adjust to a new life in the United States.
"Picture me following Derek, our startlingly obese caseworker, through the new apartment, trying to concentrate on his English with all of my mind. Picture me flipping a light switch for the first time and seeing the lamps blossom into electric life. Picture me flinching at the scream of the smoke alarm and the rush of water in the toilet and the wintry blast of the freezer, the coldest air I’d ever felt. My new apartment was full of traps, it seemed."
Two girls--one white, one black--meet as troubled children and then at various points in their different lives.
"So for the moment it didn't matter that we looked like salt and pepper standing there and that's what the other kids called us sometimes. We were eight years old and got F's all the time. Me because I couldn't remember what I read or what the teacher said. And Roberta because she couldn't read at all and didn't even listen to the teacher. She wasn't good at anything except jacks, at which she was a killer: pow scoop pow scoop pow scoop."
A black man on the run for murder seeks a hiding place in this brief yet controversial piece from a stunning Harlem Renaissance voice.
"Annie Poole cut him off. 'Dis ain't no time foh all dat kin' o' fiddle-de-roll. Ah does mah duty as Ah sees et 'shout no thanks from you. Ef de Lawd had gib you a white face 'stead o' dat dere black one, Ah shuah would turn you out. Now hush yo' mouf an' git yo'se'f in. An' don' git movin' and scrunchin' undah dose covahs and git yo'se'f kotched in mah house.'"
On his legacy, his impact on California, and why “saints should be judged guilty until proven innocent.”
An investigation into serial killings in a small North Carolina city.
As surely as 2008 was made possible by black people’s long fight to be publicly American, it was also made possible by those same Americans’ long fight to be publicly black. That latter fight belongs especially to one man, as does the sight of a first family bearing an African name. Barack Obama is the president. But it’s Malcolm X’s America.
On the enduring racial segregation in Chicago and why it’s an issue no mayoral candidate is willing to touch.
The story of a small town just outside Pittsburgh that has suffered through a half-century of economic decline, racial tension, and endless crime. Despite that trajectory, or perhaps because of it, Aliquippa has also produced an astounding number of NFL players.
A profile of the Time Man of the Year for 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On Huck Finn, the book Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word, and the evolution of language and race in America.