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Rare Birder Sightings

Bird-watching is booming, yet Black birders are as rare a bird as exists.

J. Drew Lanham, left, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, watches a bald eagle with others.

J. Drew Lanham, left, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, watches a bald eagle with others at Seattle’s Seward Park. Lanham says he did not meet another Black birder until he was well into his 40s. Photo by Glenn Nelson

Tiffany Adams grew up in the Chelsea-Elliott Houses, a sprawling, low-income housing project on the west side of Manhattan in New York City. There, cookie-cutter brick buildings are separated by modest courtyards with benches and tables. Trees and grassy yards enclosed by black, wrought-iron fences dot the fringes of the project. The scant open spaces could seem confining, except to young girls with dreams of growing up to become zoologists, or to tired and hungry birds navigating the Atlantic Flyway.

During her youth, Adams escaped to the natural world by watching National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. Five years ago — on a lark, so to speak — she attended a bird walk in Central Park. Looking up in the sky, she saw a world that she could not unsee, even upon returning to her housing complex. There, right outside her door, she saw an unexpected number of avian species — northern parulas, black-throated blue warblers, black-throated green warblers … She hasn’t stopped looking.

“Not too many people saw the value of birding in the projects,” Adams says. “But when they’re migrating, birds don’t say, ‘Oh no, those are the projects, I’m going to go to Central Park. I got to eat, I got to rest, and I got to find a mate. So whatever habitat is suitable to doing those things, I got to find it.’ Ecosystems don’t stop according to neighborhoods.”

A lot of people don’t get Tiffany Adams mostly because she’s Black, and, well, everyone knows Black folks don’t watch birds. Though the outdoor activity is booming in this country, birding is as White — 93 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service survey — as the feathers of a whooping crane. The field markings of the typical American birder would be: White, female, 53 years old.

African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, but according to Fish and Wildlife only 8 percent of all African Americans admit to intentionally viewing feathered creatures, making the Black birder as rare a bird as exists.

One of the uncommon species, Adams now is a self-trained ornithologist who last year completed a master’s degree in urban environmental education at Antioch University in Seattle. She also has the special ability to create various species of birds out of pipe cleaners. Even so, many people refuse to take her ornithological pursuits seriously. Her bona fides still are questioned when she posts about birds on social media.

Or friends misunderstand her passion: One messaged her with a question about a sick cat.

“My friends think either I’m a veterinarian or I’m doing this as a hobby, or that I’m a hippie — and I’ve actually been told that,” Adams says. “For a while, I really felt insecure. Ultimately, I could not stop watching birds. I’ve learned to embrace my nerdiness.”

John Robinson, a Southern Californian who has birded and advocated for Black birding for decades, has a theory about that. He calls it the “Don’t Loop.” It’s simple: African Americans don’t bird because people don’t engage in activities in which they don’t see people like themselves. For Black people and bird-watching, it’s a self-perpetuating scarcity. Bird-watching is not ingrained in the culture the way it is for a lot of White families and doesn’t get a generational handoff.

Robinson surmises that he joined this rare flock because he was comfortable growing up as the only Black kid in a Jewish neighborhood. So it wasn’t a big leap for him when White friends took him out hiking and birding in college. Still, he hid his passion from Black friends who wouldn’t understand and White people who might be suspicious.

It was 1979 when Robinson, then in his 20s, picked up his first pair of binoculars. “I knew I was different,” says Robinson, whose book Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers was published in 2008. “I felt like I didn’t fit in. I felt like I needed permission.” In public, he hid his binoculars inside his coat.

Few recognize this double dose of isolation better than Dudley Edmondson. He wrote and photographed a book, Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, published in 2006, about 20 African Americans with deep connections to the natural world. One of the stories is his own.

An Iranian boy jumps over a bonfire in Tehran as part of a Nowruz ritual

Tiffany Adams prefers urban birding, often at Seattle’s Hing Hay Park near her home. She is a self-trained ornithologist with a master’s in urban environmental education. She’s also an artist who creates various species of birds out of pipe cleaners. YES! Photo by Paul Dunn

Nature, for Edmondson, provided refuge from what he calls “the trauma from my dad’s alcohol-fueled rages.” He also had a strong sense of being, as he put it, “an odd duck” while growing up in a Black, mostly blue-collar neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. The kids teased Edmondson, calling him Euell Gibbons, after the celebrated outdoorsman best known for a 1974 national television commercial for Grape Nuts cereal, which he opened by asking, “Ever eat a pine tree?”

Edmondson hadn’t, and he wasn’t a 63-year-old White guy, either. His tormenters simply worked with the material that was available — and that was Whiteness. Edmondson now lives in Duluth, Minnesota, where he frequently comes across strangers who know him because he’s the area’s “Black guy who recreates.” It gives him the sensation of constantly being watched or monitored.

Not long ago, Edmondson was working on a book about Minnesota wildflowers. He was taking images of some invasive species in his own neighborhood, when a White woman challenged his motives.

“You don’t look like any nature photographer I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Edmondson replied, “I’m your neighbor.”

“I’m calling the police,” she said.

It was the first time ­Edmondson recognized the phenomenon “birding while Black,” the close cousin to driving, barbecuing, or sitting in Starbucks while Black.

Edmondson’s friend J. Drew Lanham has had a lifelong obsession with birds and describes himself as a “band geek” who played the bassoon. “I’ve always taken pride in being different,” he says. In exchange, he earned the mantle of the Black Birder. His hilarious riff on the stigmatized experience of the African American bird-watcher, “9 Rules of the Black Birdwatcher,” first appeared in Orion magazine and later went viral as a video produced by BirdNote, a public radio series about birds.

A professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University, Lanham, like Robinson, did not meet another Black birder until he was well into his 40s. He grew up on farmland in South Carolina, frequently encountering birds while passing between his parents’ and his grandmother’s houses. He liked to lie on the ground and gaze up at circling hawks. His grandmother told him they’d peck his eyes out, so when they came within 50 or so yards, he jumped up. “I liked my eyes,” he says. He grew up wanting to fly, tried often, and just as often hurt himself during the attempts.

“Birds made me feel good,” says ­Lanham, who in 2016 authored the book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. “They were going places that I couldn’t go. They were going places I wanted to go. I lived vicariously through them.”

These days, when he’s not flushing bobwhite quail, Lanham likes to talk about range maps for humans, linking the concept of showing geographic distribution of birds to the realities of race in the U.S. — where people of color like him can and cannot be. Not long ago, he added Seattle to his personal range map. That’s where he met Joey Manson in Seward Park, at an event for BirdNote, on whose board Lanham sits. While driving in, Lanham noticed Manson waiting to greet him, but it didn’t register that Manson, a Black man, was the director at the park’s Audubon Center. It was an emotional meeting for both. “This is a place that is willing to be different,” Lanham says.

J. Drew Lanham earned the mantle of the Black Birder. His hilarious riff on the stigmatized experience of the African American bird-watcher, “9 Rules of the Black Birdwatcher,” first appeared in Orion magazine and later went viral as a video produced by BirdNote, a public radio series about birds.

Seward Park is located in one of the most racially diverse areas of Seattle. Manson is the only African American director of any of the 41 Audubon Centers nationally. He grew up in Prince George’s County, Maryland, one of the most affluent African American neighborhoods in the country.

Manson studied glass design at the University of Maryland and ended up in the Puget Sound region, where he got a job running the Audubon store at Seward Park. During his job interview, he stressed that he knew little about birds. Four years later, he’d absorbed enough to be hired as the center’s director, positioning him to break Robinson’s “Don’t Loop” by introducing birds and nature, meaningfully and intentionally, in a highly diverse area of one of the country’s most White — and affluent — major cities.

Manson had two epiphanies along the way. On a ride into work one day, he was wowed by a bald eagle snatching a fish out of Lake Washington. Later, he introduced a kid from his apartment building to the outdoors. Nati, who is from Eritrea, told Manson, “Birds are boring.” That attitude changed when, during an Audubon summer camp to which Manson transported him, Nati saw a pileated woodpecker for the first time. The Woody lookalike supplied an avian turning point for Nati just as the eagle had for Manson.

Last summer, Manson led a bird walk through Seward Park for the Seattle chapter of Outdoor Afro, a national organization seeking to connect African Americans to nature. As part of the prewalk orientation, Manson screened the Lanham video “Rules of the Black Birdwatcher.” Later, when Manson waxed poetic about hummingbirds and the J-diving mating maneuver of the males, Obra Smith, a teacher originally from Memphis, Tennessee, beamed at every word. Her enthusiasm never waned. “That was amazing,” she said while debriefing with other group members after the outing.

Earlier in the day, during the first bird-related outing in her 49 years of life, Smith had peered into a spotting scope, noted the iridescent throat of an Anna’s hummingbird, and pronounced it a boy. She didn’t make such a declaration with utter conviction, but with a hint of doubting intonation. She would delight in being told that she was right as rain — well, it was Seattle, after all.

Two weeks later, Smith returned to Seward Park with Tsion Kahssai of Ethiopia, whom she met at the Outdoor Afro walk. Their second time out, the two Black women sampled the forest’s winged delights on their own.

Books+Film+Music

Are You One of the Good People of the Zombie Apocalypse?

Practicing for some not-too-distant future.

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

WWe’re in the middle of a government shutdown as I write this. Vital services for people are temporarily gone. Hundreds of thousands have no paychecks coming and no plan for what they’ll do. Garbage is piling up in the national parks. In an economy with a tiny percentage hoarding the resources, more and more of us are fighting for the scraps. Some days, even without the minor detail of the reanimated dead, it’s easy to see our proximity to a zombie apocalypse.

It’s apt context for considering Peter Biskind’s new book, The Sky Is ­Falling: How Vampires, Zombies, Androids, and Superheroes Made America Great for Extremism, especially for me. I’m a comic book writer whose work includes a zombie series, as well as a career-long pop culture critic and ­lifelong devotee of the genres in Biskind’s title.

I expected from the author of Easy Riders, Raging Bulls an illuminating dive into the connection between my kind of nerd pop culture and the rise of extremism, currently a euphemism for Trumpism. Biskind asserts that there are centrist shows (World War Z) and extreme ones on the right (24) and left (Avatar), with subcategories such as the luddite left and dot-com left. But some shows (like The Matrix and The Hunger Games) appeal to extremes on both sides.

Apocalyptic fantasy movies and TV shows, he says, are “dress rehearsals for a show we hope will never open.” But he doesn’t develop that thought adequately. I say that show is now opening.

The Sky Is Falling book cover
The Sky Is Falling

Zombie shows in particular do reflect extremism and have been vehicles for cultural commentary starting with George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) and on through countless imitators, such as popular AMC series The Walking Dead. Regardless of the specific social commentary — Vietnam in Night, consumerism in Dawn — they tend to share some basics: no functioning government, everyone for themselves, fighting for increasingly scarce resources, armed to the teeth.

After two years of a Trump administration, a Republican-controlled Congress, and historic political polarization, the zombie apocalypse is getting a little real. Zombie shows seem less and less like escapist fantasies than practice for some not-too-distant future. The zombie fans who converge in a Venn diagram with assorted nihilists, government haters, and doomsday preppers may have just been better at sensing which way the wind’s blowing.

A zombie apocalypse hallmark is that there’s no government coming to your rescue in the crisis. The people of Puerto Rico can relate to this now. And I guarantee some future zombie show will include an ineffectual dimwit lobbing paper towels at survivors.

Whether or not you considered Ronald Reagan a zombie, he sired a generation of conservatives who loathe government and got elected to kill it. Ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon bragged that the administration’s goal was the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” That’s included mowing down regulations — also known as protections for consumers, students, workers, breathers, water drinkers, and eaters.

And people in zombie tales never feel safe. Consider:

Gun deaths rose in 2017 to about 40,000. We are by far the industrial world’s outlier. A few days ago, a bowling alley not far from me in Torrance, California, got shot up. A few weeks earlier, a mass shooting in nearby Thousand Oaks made headlines.

The insecurity is not just out on the streets. Nearly 80 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and 4 in 10 can’t afford a $400 emergency expense.

Undead plague survivors know they can’t count on the old rules anymore. Ethical behavior isn’t rewarded, and corrupt behavior isn’t punished.

You don’t need a forensic analysis to spot the extreme conservative and liberal outlooks in zombie shows.

They’re front and center: I’ve got mine, Jack. You’re on your own. And I’ll do whatever’s necessary to survive, even if it means you don’t.

Or: Our only chance for survival is working together and functioning as a society. How we survive is as important as whether we survive.

Zombie shows have let us peer into the abyss from a safe distance. As the distance got less safe in the past couple years, we pulled back. The midterm elections were the real-world equivalent of a rebellion against The Walking Dead’s despotic villain Negan.

Zombie shows also tap into our fear of people turning into something else. They look like the people you know and love, but that’s not them anymore. Whether it’s the wife who goes to embrace her unwell-looking husband who takes a big, gruesome chomp out of her in Dawn of the Dead, or your parents who bring up Fox News talking points when you go home, something’s not right.

Let’s take a brief detour with superheroes. It’ll dovetail, I promise.

Biskind doesn’t make much of a case that superhero comics, shows, and movies promote extremism. In fact, they’re mainly juvenile power fantasies and — as a fellow comic writer once described them to me — tall tales. They’re generally about heroes and villains, right and wrong, and good punching the crap out of evil. Generally.

Superheroes embody decency, and their villains function as the id.

Recently, superheroes have endured a minor infection Biskind skips, known as Comicsgate, a movement against diversity and liberalism in comics, which does share Venn diagram space with “alt-right” extremists. The superirony of Comicsgate supporters who deride “social justice warriors” is that that’s exactly what superheroes have always been. And Comicsgaters who have harassed creators who are liberal, female, LGBTQ, or people of color seem unaware that this makes them the bad guys in any reality.

Here’s the dovetail: We’re getting sick of bad guys, and some heroes are stepping up. We’ve had a prolonged test-drive with the id at the wheel, and most of us prefer decency.

Zombie shows have let us peer into the abyss from a safe distance. As the distance got less safe in the past couple years, we pulled back. The midterm elections were the real-world equivalent of a rebellion against The Walking Dead’s despotic villain Negan.

Like any true hero’s journey, there’s some loss. In this case, it’s somewhere between a quarter and a third of us who we just have to accept are MAGA zombies. They’re gone. I’m sorry. We have to keep moving.

But like The Walking Dead’s Rick Grimes, new and diverse leaders are emerging who remind us that everyone for themselves and a society driven by fear and selfishness simply doesn’t work. These good people want to save your health care and social safety net and hold Negan, I mean, Trump, accountable for his abuses.

Here’s a helpful zombie exercise to see where you come down: You’re in Night of the Living Dead, where a group of people have been thrown together in an isolated farmhouse besieged by hungry zombies. Who would you be?

Would you be Ben, the no-nonsense leader who gets everyone to work together for survival against the common threat? (He was a Black man who some folks didn’t like bossin’ ’em around, not unlike Obama.)

Would you be Barbra? (“They’re coming to get you, Barbra!”) She goes catatonic during the crisis.

Or would you be Harry Cooper, the bald coward who’s only out for himself and his family and throws others under the zombie bus in a pinch?

The hopeful part: If Cooper sounds too familiar in 2019 during a government shutdown driven by stoking our fears, here’s a reassuring spoiler: He doesn’t win in the end.

Books+Film+Music

The Power of Angry Women

Three short excerpts.

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

Recent books by Rebecca Traister, Soraya Chemaly, and Brittney Cooper address the particularly superpowerful way women are feeling these days. From different perspectives, they each examine the way women’s anger is deflected in patriarchal society and its potential for political impact — past, present, and future.

The Reckoning

The anger window was open. For decades, for centuries, it had been closed. Something bad happened to you, you shoved it down, you maybe told someone but probably didn’t get much satisfaction — emotional or practical — from the confession. Maybe you even got blowback. No one really cared, and certainly no one was going to do anything about it.

But in the four months that followed the reporting on one movie mogul’s sexual predation, a Harvey-sized hole was blown in the American news cycle, and there was suddenly space and air for women to talk — to yell and scream and rage. …

Good and Mad book cover
Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger

Some of those who spoke did so to friends or family members or to other colleagues, many for the first time. Some women lodged complaints, years later, with HR departments. Some spoke to reporters, providing corroborating evidence, contemporaneous witnesses, photographs, and diaries for documentation; they showed their nondisclosure agreements and settled lawsuit filings; they produced the friends and husbands they told at the time, though many, many of them had told no one.

Then there were others who simply took the things that had always been private, quiet — the whispers, nudges, and meaningful stares that had served as warnings — and made them public and loud, with no mediation; they wrote their stories on social media, in tweets and Facebook posts that could be sent around the world in seconds. Some women in the media compiled a shared document, anonymously detailing their encounters with “shitty men” in their industry, men they named. It was dangerous and irresponsible and a sign of exactly how desperate, how utterly, profoundly furious they were, and how out of fucks they were about letting the world know. — Rebecca Traister, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Simon and Schuster, 2018

Orchestrated Fury

Individualized acts of eloquent rage have limited reach. But the collective, orchestrated fury of Black women can move the whole world. This is what the Black Lives Matter movement has reminded us. There is something clarifying about Black women’s rage, something essential about the way it rolls down to the core truth. The truth is that Black women’s anger is not the problem. “For it is not the anger of Black women,” [the writer Audre] Lorde tells us, “which is dripping down over this globe like a diseased liquid. It is not our anger which launches rockets … missiles, and other agents of war and death.” “Anger,” she said, “is an appropriate response to racist attitudes.” #AudreLordeTaughtMe …

Eloquent Rage book cover
Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower

Whether we are at work, at church, at school, in court, in the halls of government, or in the streets, the rage of Black women and girls does the necessary work of pushing American democracy forward, of exposing its flaws, of dramatizing its injustices, of taking its violent beatings. Black women’s rage isn’t always healthy, particularly when we turn it on ourselves or on our children. But when we turn it outward and focus it on the powers that would crush us into submission and give back to us a mangled image of ourselves, Black women’s rage is a kind of power that America would do well to heed if it wants to finally live up to its stated democratic aims. — Brittney Cooper, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, St. Martin’s Press, 2018

Be Brave

Be brave enough to stop pleasing people, to be disliked, to rub people the wrong way. In many environments, all you have to do to be castigated as an angry woman is to say something out loud, so you might as well say exactly what’s bothering you and get on with it. This means that, usually, you have to come to terms with not always being liked. Your anger and assertiveness will make some people unhappy, uncomfortable, sensitive, cautious. They will resent you, your thoughts, your words. They will hate your willingness to risk social connections and challenge social conventions. Be prepared to be labelled humorless, difficult, a spoilsport, and a ruiner of parties, meetings, dinners, and picnics.

Rage Becomes Her book cover
Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger

There is discomfort in understanding. There will always be people who are deeply uncomfortable with your anger. They will attempt to diminish what you say by disparaging your choice of expression. This is a kind of laziness and a sure symptom of dismissal, and sometimes, abuse. If someone does not care to consider why you are angry, or why anger is your approach to a specific event or problem, then that person is almost certainly part of the problem. Among women, this dismissal often comes from the desire not to identify with “victimhood,” and your anger, as a marker of social difference and disadvantage, is a challenge to that concept. Demanding fairness and describing a problem doesn’t make you a “victim.” Silencing, denial, mockery, intimidation, and callousness might, though.

It helps, in these circumstances, to think of the difference between being nice, which girls are taught to do at all costs, and being kind. Nice is something you do to please others, even if you have no interest, desire, or reason to. Kindness, on the other hand, assumes that you are true to yourself first. — Soraya ­Chemaly, Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger, Atria Books: Simon and Schuster, 2018

Books+Film+Music

Hey, Alexa: Add These to My Movie Therapy List

22 films to soothe our racial justice soul.

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

YES! ILLUSTRATION BY FRAN MURPHY

Some therapists prescribe movies as a form of treatment. Yep, movie therapy, or cinema therapy, is an expressive, sensory-based treatment that uses movies, TV shows, videos, and animation as tools for growth and healing. And it’s been found to enhance the therapeutic process and increase overall engagement with clients whom therapists find difficult to reach.

I’ve experienced this to be true.

Three years ago, when I switched up the television shows that I watch, choosing only those that feature what I perceived to be real Black lives, I was unknowingly engaged in cinema therapy. Watching shows that affirmed my Blackness and womanhood helped me reflect on my own value and worthiness and heal from the trauma I’d experienced over the years of consuming White-male-dominated narratives.

Research has shown that certain films have caused social justice change, or simply inspired good things to happen. A study by Yale researchers shows that the movie The Day After Tomorrow “had a significant impact” on movie goers’ attitude toward climate change.

Considering the polarized and xenophobic state of the country and the world, I’ll take the liberty of suggesting that we all are — no matter how we identify — experiencing racial trauma. The following race-related flicks will make you cry and laugh (looking at you, Trevor Noah); some may make you mad. They all will help you think differently.

Documentaries for Thought
Inside the Ku Klux Klan (2015)
Inside the Ku Klux Klan (2015)

It’s August 2014. People are raging in Ferguson, Missouri, and across the United States after a White police officer there shoots and kills Michael Brown, an unarmed Black teenager. This year also marks the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan.

British filmmaker Dan Vernon spent seven months inside the Missouri chapter of the Traditionalist American Knights of the KKK to discover who belongs, and if White supremacy is on the rise, as the organization claims.

I surprised myself by watching this — and in one sitting. It was far from soothing. What it did do, however, was confirm my belief that White ­supremacy/nationalism is fundamentally grounded in fear — fear of others and a fear of becoming irrelevant.

I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
I Am Not Your Negro (2016)

James Baldwin was one of the most prominent U.S. analytical thinkers, social critics, and book authors of the 20th century. If he were still alive, what would he say about race relations and racism today? I imagine he would say the same things he said decades ago.

In so many ways, on so many levels, not much has changed.

Baldwin’s unfinished work, Remember This House, was a story of America through the lives of civil rights leaders Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, I Am Not Your Negro is director Raoul Peck’s vision of how it would have turned out had it been completed. In Negro, Peck creatively connects the history of race and its impact from the civil rights movement to Black Lives Matter through a range of media.

The opening scene is Baldwin’s 1968 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, which foreshadows the documentary with this query: “It’s not a question of what happens to the Negro here, or to the Black man here … but the real question is ‘What’s going to happen to this country?’”

13th (2016)
13th (2016)

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits slavery — with the exception of the enslavement of those in our penal system. In 13th, award-winning filmmaker Ava ­DuVernay interviews scholars, activists, and politicians about the mass incarceration of African Americans. She brilliantly links today’s prison boom to slavery and Jim Crow.

Interviewees include political activist and professor Angela Davis; political analyst and CNN commentator Van Jones; author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color­blindness, Michelle Alexander; U.S. Sen. Cory Booker; former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich.

Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)
Who Killed Vincent Chin? (1987)

In 1982, Detroit autoworker Ronald Ebens used a baseball bat to beat to death Chinese American auto engineer Vincent Chin. Neither Ebens nor his stepson ever served a day behind bars for that killing at a local bar even though they both confessed to it. Instead the men received a plea bargain, to the outrage of local citizens and criminal justice advocates. Chin’s case is taught in Asian American studies courses around the country.

More Documentaries:

Dolores: Rebel. Activist. Feminist. Mother. (2017); Explained: The Racial Wealth Gap (2018); What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015); Freeway: Crack in the System (2015); KKK: The Fight for White Supremacy (2015); and Eyes on the Prize: America’s Civil Rights Years 1954–1965 (1990).

Some Much-Needed Laughter
Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark (2017) and Son of Patricia (2018)
Afraid of the Dark (2017) and Son of Patricia (2018)

If you can’t get enough of Noah’s intellectual humor on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, you have to check out the South African comedian’s Netflix stand-up specials Afraid of the Dark and Son of Patricia.

He may not be able to make sense of the Trump presidency or racism, but maybe he can help you find humor in the ridiculousness of both.

As I write, Donald Trump and his wall are dominating the news, and the government is shut down. I want to just throw something at the screen.

Later, I’m watching Patricia’s son and laughing harder than I did the first time because I’d totally forgotten about this line, which is some timely and much-needed empathy for how I’m feeling:

“I still can’t believe the things Donald Trump says. For me, Donald Trump is an emotional paradox, I’m not gonna lie. Logically I can process him; emotionally I struggle.”

Amen, Trevor!

Dave Chappelle: Equanimity and the Bird Revelation (2017)
Dave Chappelle: Equanimity and the Bird Revelation (2017)

Stand-up veteran Dave Chappelle resurfaced and redeemed himself in Netflix’s Equanimity and the Bird Revelation. While I don’t agree with all of his jokes, there is something to be said for a comedian who can acknowledge his own lack of information or understanding about an issue and vulnerably confess to his missteps (like when he suggested we all give Trump a chance).

I can’t get enough of Chappelle. A disclaimer, though: While his comedy is smart, funny, honest, and blunt, it may be offensive to some.

Release Your Imagination
Bright (2017)
Bright (2017)

Two cops — a human (Will Smith) and an orc — battle their differences as they work together to protect the damsel-in-distress elf who is key to saving the world. Honestly, I could have passed on this. Then again, other viewers may get something out of it. Instead of color-based racism, there are species that discriminate against each other: humans, orcs, fairies, and elves.

More Imagination:

Black Panther (2018).

Love and Racial Justice
Belle (2013)
Belle (2013)

Based on a true story, the movie portrays the historical Dido Elizabeth Belle, the illegitimate mixed-race daughter of a British Navy admiral and African mother who was enslaved in the British West Indies. After her mother’s death, her father takes her to live with his family in England. When he is killed, his uncle, the Lord Chief Justice, officially becomes Belle’s guardian. Her integration into British society is complicated. She is instrumental in softening her uncle’s heart toward slavery, and he makes a series of anti-slavery rulings that helped to fuel the abolition movement, which outlawed slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.

Loving (2016)
Loving (2016)

The repeal of miscegenation laws in the U.S. began in 1948. But in Virginia in 1958, these laws were still in place when Richard and Mildred Loving married. The young couple battled these racist laws to be together — endangering their freedom and lives as well as their loved ones. They would take their fight all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, winning in the historic 1967 decision Loving v. Virginia.

More Love and Racial Justice:

First They Killed My Father (2017); Lion (2016); 42 (2013); Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002); and Imitation of Life (1934, 1959).

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Tilling the Earth

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