Friday ‘Flashblack:” Remembering Nick Ashford: American Music Legend

From August 2011, On The Rise Magazine



Most people, apart from R&B music fans, aren’t readily familiar with the name Nickolas Ashford.  However, if they’ve seen major motion pictures like Sister Act, Stepmom, and Remember the Titans, if they’ve watched any of the American Idol’s “Motown Nights” over the past 10 years, if their children have watched Nickelodeon’s “Fred Movie”, they know his music.  With his wife of 38-years, Valerie Simpson, Nick Ashford has penned some of the most memorable songs in American music history.  In a time where success in the music industry is marked by the amount of recorded units sold or actual airtime, the song for which Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson have become synonymous with in larger American culture, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” (initially written for Dusty Springfield, then  recorded as a solo song for Motown’s Tammi Terrell and later made a duet for Terrell and Marvin Gaye at the insistence of Motown executive and Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, Harvey Fuqua), only charted at #16 on the Billboard in 1967; it wasn’t until 1970, when Diana Ross left The Supremes to pursue a solo career that the song became a #1 pop and R&B single.  

Born in Fairfield, South Carolina on May 4, 1941, Nickolas Ashford didn’t originally aspire to be a songwriter.  He had his sights set on becoming a professional dancer.  He moved to New York in pursuit of his dreams and spent quite a bit of time living on the streets and sleeping on park benches.  One day, another man, also sleeping in the park, told Nick about a church in Harlem where he could get something to eat.  No one at White Rock Baptist Church knew Nick was homeless when he arrived in a suit he stored in a locker at the Port Authority.  They just accepted him as he was and welcomed him into their congregation.  It was at that church where he met a 17-year old Valerie Simpson, the woman who was to become his songwriting partner and later his wife.

By 1966, the duo had their first hit with Ray Charles’, “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”  Written in 1964 and originally recorded by The Coasters in 1965, Charles’ cover reached #1 on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart and #31 on the Hot (pop singles) 100 chart.   This was one of Charles’ first hit records after having been arrested for drug possession.  It was this success that caught the eye of Motown founder and CEO, Berry Gordy, Jr.  If they could write a comeback hit for Ray Charles, then it was quite possible they could write hits for Motown acts struggling to have that surefire success.  Motown had solidified its standing in American popular culture by that time as the only record label in the country owned, operated, distributed, and staffed by African Americans to reach a pinnacle of success uncommon for an independent label.  The label was unparalled in its operation and its identifiable, “Motown Sound.”  The key to creating this sound was having an internal staff of songwriters whose primary task was to pen hit songs, singles, for the artists signed to the label and for those songs to undergo a process known as “quality control.”  

At the time Nick and Valerie came to Motown, Berry Gordy, Jr. had recently signed a 20 year-old Thomasina Montgomery whom he crowned Tammi Terrell.  Paired with other songwriters/producers, including Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol, Tammi still hadn’t been able to secure a breakthrough, crossover hit to elevate her into the same stratosphere as her contemporaries at the label.  It wasn’t until she was paired with Marvin Gaye, Nick and Val did Tammi have that level success.  Ashford and Simpson wrote the majority of duets recorded by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.  These songs, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Keep On Lovin’ Me Honey,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” You’re All I Need To Get By” performed well on both the R&B and Pop charts and established Marvin and Tammi as Motown’s pre-eminent duo.  Ashford and Simpson wrote and produced songs for three Marvin and Tammi albums, between 1967 and 1970.  However, due to Tammi’s deteriorating health and subsequent death, the Marvin and Tammi, Nick and Val collaborations ceased.

After the death of Tammi Terrell in 1970, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson went on to write and produce for a number of artists throughout the 1970’s and early 1980’s, including: Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson, Chaka Khan, The Marvelettes, Rufus ft. Chaka Khan, and Teddy Pendergrass.  The duo left Motown in 1973 and signed with Warner Brothers in 1974, the same year they married and later had two daughters.  While at Warner Brothers, scored their biggest hit as performers, 1984’s “Solid (As A Rock)”.  In recent years, Nick and Valerie have expanded their love of music and songwriting into other venues other than radio.  In 1996, they opened Sugar Bar in Harlem.  Sugar Bar is a restaurant/ entertainment venue that hosts visiting singers and musicians as well as an open mic night where poets can share their work with patrons.  Nick Ashford appeared in  a few films, including New Jack City in 1991.  A host of you artists have sampled their music, including Fantasia and the late Amy Winehouse, who shared songwriting credit with the duo for her song “Tears Dry On Their Own,” which heavily samples the Marvin and Tammi version of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  

Nick Ashford’s death on August 22, 2011 came to the surprise of many who revered his music and had intricate knowledge of the many songs he and Valerie had written over the years and the list of elite singers and performers who have recorded, covered, and sampled their works over the last 50 years.  In a statement released by Vickie Wright on Facebook, Tammi Terrell’s sister wrote:

                           “When I first got the news about Nick’s transition, I stopped and pondered what he                                meant to me! The memories flowed back to me.  If it had not been for he and Val, my                            sister, Tammi, and Marvin may never had the chance to memorialize those beautiful                            lyrics that he and his wife created!  A fantastic musician in his own right, coupled                                   with the foresight and ability that has not been matched to this day!  What a man,                                 what a man you are…”

News of Nick’s death also became a trending topic on Twitter with celebrities from a variety of art forms and genres of music, as well as politicians and social activists who’ve enjoyed his songs over the years.  

In reflecting on my own work, a forthcoming book on Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell and the making of “What’s Going On,” Nick plays a significant part in that story and how I’ve decided to tell it.  I am sad that he died before we could do an interview, but I am thankful for the body of work he and Valerie created for Marvin and Tammi because I wouldn’t have a book to write about had it not been for that one song that got the metaphorical ball of history rolling.  As I write this piece to memorialize Nick’s contributions to American music and drink coffee from a cup that is adorned with his lyrics, “I’m every woman, it’s all in me,” I realize that I have barely scratched the surface when it comes to naming all of Nick Ashford’s accomplishments; some of that I figured I would save for the book.  However, I have mentioned enough to make the case for why he deserves recognition from both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the South Carolina Hall of Fame in 2012 and will explore that further in the October print issue of On The Rise Magazine.  



Friday “Flashblack:’ Gone But Not Forgotten: MC Trouble, Motown’s First Lady of Hip Hop


From September 9, 2011, On The Rise Magazine



Before Nicki Minaj became the First Lady of Rap for Universal Motown, there was LaTasha Sheron Rogers, better known as MC Trouble, the First Female Rapper signed to Motown Records in the late 80’s-early 90’s; an amazing feat considering the legendary label’s apparent reluctance to embrace the genre of Hip-Hop, seeking instead to re-create the musical vestiges of the past.

Signing Trouble was a huge step for the label and a bold one made by then President, Jheryl Busby.  Not only did Trouble’s addition to the label affirm Hip-Hop’s standing in American youth culture—after all, Founder Berry Gordy did brand the Motown “The Sound of Young America,” it also symbolized the cracking of what remains a largely intact glass ceiling in Hip-Hop.  Her first single, “(I Wanna) Make You Mine,” from the album Gotta Get A Grip reached #15 on Billboard’s (at the time) Hot Rap Singles chart.  With this success in hand, the label released a series of singles on MC Trouble and commissioned a follow up album that she had been working on at the time of her death.

Many of her peers regarded her as a multitalented lyricist, who had she lived, would have grown more skillful in her craft and possibly even enjoy crossover success.  If one questions the impact she had on Hip-Hop and R&B at the time, s/he need only look at the number of artists who sent shout outs to her in heaven after her passing: A Tribe Called Quest (“Vibes and Stuff”), Nefertiti (“Trouble In Paradise”), and Trouble’s label mates, The Boys (“The Saga Continues…”).  There is so much to be said about Trouble’s talents, but her death had an even bigger impact on Motown Records in the early 1990’s, bigger than many even know; an impact similar and ironic, compared to one that occurred some 20 years before her untimely death in 1991 while on the verge of imminent success.

It was reported that MC Trouble died in her sleep, suffering an epileptic seizure brought on by complications from a pre-diagnosed brain tumor.  This bit of historical information really speaks to Trouble’s commitment to her art in that despite her health issues, she continued to record and perform without the public having true knowledge of her plight.

MC Trouble was not the first female talent at Motown of the verge of success whose life was cut too short, too soon by a brain tumor.  In 1970, the very year MC Trouble was born, Motown’s “Sweetheart,” Tammi Terrell, died from complications associated with a brain tumor as well.  Tammi’s death had a rippling effect through Motown.  Very few people inside or outside the Motown family knew of Tammi’s illness, but they did know that despite being gravely ill, Tammi continued to record and work as often as she could between surgeries.

When Tammi died, artists like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder no longer wanted to sing about love and innocence when the very friend who personified both was gone.  From “What’s Going On” in 1971 to “Hotter Than July” in 1980, Motown’s flagship artists spent an entire decade singing about social justice and the human condition in the U.S. and around the world.  They sang far more passionately about love and life, and were open to experimenting with the gamut of musical sounds and messages available to them.

MC Trouble’s death, too, had a similar impact on Motown (then owned by parent company MCA) artists.  Just as Marvin and Stevie had sought more independence and artistic freedom in the 1970’s, in the 1990’s groups like The Boys and newly signed group, Boyz II Men, also wanted to evolve as artists and produce their own material; just as their predecessors—Tammi’s contemporaries— had.  Like Tammi, as Motown moved into a new era, Trouble’s music and memory within the label was put to final rest.  Like Trouble, Tammi had remained an obscure part of the label’s history, her catalog all but discarded, until Tammi’s sister, Ludie Montgomery and Motown biographer, Vickie Wright, wrote a very honest biographical account of Tammi’s life, which breathed new interest in a talent many have dubbed “the forgotten child of Motown.”  To date, no one has written such an account about MC Trouble.  

MC Trouble died in an era where with the death of male rappers due to violence or disease (as in the case of Easy E) gain them notoriety, the death of a female MC goes largely unnoticed because the contributions of female MC’s, save for a few, go largely unnoticed.  Make no mistake if it weren’t for women, lyricists or not, these dudes wouldn’t have a thing to rhyme about.  Therefore, we should honor the memory of one who may not have had a long impact, but did have an impact and died so suddenly, not at the hands of another or a disease that many people care to acknowledge as serious in the African American community (African Americans are far more likely to die from brain tumors than other racial groups), but because she died, she was talented…and she was loved by all who knew her.  And in her memory, we also honor another, Tammi, who also just died, was talented and equally loved.

In November of 2010, MC Trouble was ranked #21 in a list of #25 rappers who were “gone too soon” by  That same month the Tammi Terrell complete collection of solo recordings, Come On And See Me, was given several five –star reviews in various music trade magazines and websites.  Thank goodness some of us do not forget!


Watch MC Trouble on YouTube at

Read My Sister Tommie: The Real Tammi Terrell by Ludie Montgomery and Vickie Wright, Bank House Books, 2005.

Friday ‘Flashblack:’ To Kill Or Not To Kill: What One Politician’s Fight to Abolish the Death Penalty Reveals about Politics, Race and the American Psyche

From October 2011, X3 Magazine



With the recent execution of Troy Davis in Georgia, discussion about the morality of the death penalty as it applies to criminal justice has resurfaced.  Some have challenged the argument that states should have the right to take the life of another human being as punishment for committing crimes, however heinous.  Others have argued that it is an appropriate punishment in some cases and should remain an option for the states to seek as they plan to prosecute.  While these perspectives are totally contradictory, they do have one thing in common.  Both positions bring to light a very serious problem in this country with our politics and with our mindset in terms of how we value the lives of individuals, criminals and victims alike.  

The death penalty discussion is overwrought with emotion so intense that it borders on violence.  However, if you step away from the emotion, and look at the facts, approaching the subject with forethought and logic, you see just how twisted our collective thinking about this issue in America really is.  Here are some facts compiled by the Death Penalty information Center:

  • Thirty-four states, the U.S. Government, and the U.S. Military have laws that permit the application of the death penalty in the U.S.
  • Sixteen states and the District of Columbia do not have a death penalty statute (while New Mexico no longer has the death penalty, they do have two inmates remaining on death row).
  • All of the southern states have a death penalty, and are responsible for 80% of all executions; the south also has the highest per capita murder rate in the U.S.
  • From the time the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted nationwide in 1976, there have been 1271 executions (an average of 36 executions per year, though 1999 had the most executions in any one year with 98).
  • Of the 1271 executed, a disproportionate number of those were African American (African Americans were found to be almost half of those on death row despite only remaining about 12% of the population in the U.S.).
  • The victims in death penalty cases, 76%, were overwhelmingly white.
  • In states where racial discrimination in the application of the death penalty was reviewed, 96% demonstrated such a pattern.
  • The State of Texas has executed more prisoners than any other state with 475 executions to date; the State of Virginia is second with 109 executions to date.
  • In a recent survey, 88% of experts on criminal justice (not the death penalty) do not believe the death penalty deters persons from committing murder.

With facts that are so disparaging why, then, do politicians chose to make the death penalty law?  And why does the country as a whole believe that having such a threat of “justice” makes individuals or potential victims any more safe than would a sentence of life without parole?

“In no case is it about murder, it’s about some murders,” says Connecticut State Representative, Gary Holder Winfield, a Democrat for District 94 in New Haven.  

Holder-Winfield began his job as a lawmaker with the eradication of the death penalty in Connecticut.  As a freshman lawmaker, Holder-Winfield’s position was  to look at the policy and demonstrate to the public that “it does not do what we believe it does…we need to take time to think about it, [the death penalty] doesn’t deter crime.”  

Holder-Winfield’s strategy was to generate press.  He  talked to all the advocates, many of whom didn’t take the freshman legislator seriously.  Then by his own admission, he did something vastly different than those policymakers in the past, who shared his views, had done: he listened.  “I went to every one of my colleagues and asked them to tell me their views and then I left.”  According to Holder-Winfield, this strategy “made them think,” and he realized that he actually had the numbers to “move” the bill forward.

But it wasn’t that easy.  The political fight to abolish the death penalty in Connecticut was about to become complicated by raw emotion in a state that still angered by the most highly publicized crime in its history, the 2007 Cheshire home invasion and the vicious murder of a mother and her two children.

In July of 2007, two men invaded the home of Dr. William A. Petit, Jr., his wife Jennifer Hawke-Petit, and their two daughters Hayley, 17, and Michaela, 11.  Dr. Petit was beaten unconscious, his wife was raped and strangled, one daughter was also raped and the two girls were bound and left to die in a house that was then covered in gasoline and set on fire.  Since then, the two men responsible have been captured and charged with murder and a host of other crimes against the Petit’s.  One has been convicted and sentenced to death.  The trial of the second began on September 19, 2011 and the prosecutor is also seeking the death penalty in that case.  

However, at the time Representative Holder-Winfield began his journey in 2009 to get the bill repealing the death penalty in the state to a vote the Petit case hadn’t come to trial.  Many believed that a crime so devastatingly vile was worthy of the death sentence and feared repealing the statute would make a such a sentencing option unavailable by the time the case was tried.  Many of Holder-Winfield’s peers in both chamber of the Connecticut legislature were fearful, as well, and about how support or vote to abolish the death penalty in the State of Connecticut would impact their individual political careers.

Holder-Winfield, at first, had several cordial conversations with Dr. Petit.  “He respected my handling of the issue,” says the lawmaker.  “I was respectful. I knew the victims, the names of his wife and daughters, their ages and always [in discussion] put the victims first.”  However, as the trials grew nearer, those conversations dwindled and eventually ceased altogether.  Despite the ongoing trial of the second killer, Holder-Winfield will introduce another bill to repeal the penalty.

“In policy and presenting the death penalty,” says Holder-Winfield, “we offer it as a resolution, not thinking about how the family of the victim may feel 20 years down the road.  [In public policy] we just seek the resolution at the time, but never come to [the] conclusion that the family will never ultimately have resolution, their loved one is still gone.”

Holder-Winfield also cites how important language is in the movement to abolishing the death penalty is and how that language is presented to the public.  He says that the death penalty is sold to the public as protection for an unknown crime that will likely be committed at any time against every person in society, that we are all potential victims.  He says that the propaganda machine that fuels the media’s obsession and ultimately drives public opinion “assumes that the criminal actually recognizes what the circumstances [of the law and its application] are…most acts of murder are not done with the foresight it takes for one to know that they could eventually be put to death.”  

“Typically it is offered [to the public] this way: death penalty or no death penalty.  But when you ask people what they think about the death penalty versus a sentence of life without parole, then the answer and reaction is totally different, but in discussion, they aren’t offered that option.”

The death penalty doesn’t just only shock people into fear.  In some instances, it also brings forth their prejudices.

Holder-Winfield says that theapplication of the death penalty will “always be discriminatory.  People are charged for sins against the state, not crimes against individuals, but when emotions and fears come into play, it then becomes about the individuals and there is never going to be equality.”

Race is a very complex issue in America.  It is also a very profitable one.  News outlets use it to make money by shocking viewers in to buying a product to “protect” their families.  Politicians use it to get elected.  In criminal justice it’s what Holder-Winfield calls “the replication of the history of this country,”  and that with regard to the death penalty it is “sold as protection to white people against some mysterious dark criminal hiding in the shadows…blacks have been on the wrong side of this thing for years.”

How do the complexities of race play into the application of the death penalty?  

First, consider that the youngest person ever sentenced to death in the U.S. was a Native American boy named James Arcene.  Arcene was convicted for his alleged role in a robbery and murder committed in 1872 when he was just 10-years-old. Arcene was executed at age 23 in 1885.

Next, consider the case of George Stinney, Jr. who was executed in South Carolina, accused of murdering two young white girls in 1944.  According to official accounts, Stinney was offered ice cream in exchange for a confession.  He was only 14 and the youngest person executed in the history of the United States.  This revelation coming in the wake of the Troy Davis execution, the Stinney case has renewed interest as there appears to be evidence the murders were committed by another individual.  

Now, consider the case of Susan Smith, the Union, South Carolina mother who at first accused a black man carjacking her and kidnapping her two young children who were in the backseat.   Smith confessed to murdering her children on November 3, 1993 by letting her car roll into a lake and drowning them.  It has been written that her alleged motive was to rid herself of the children in order to continue an affair with a wealthy man who wanted no children.  Smith was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in prison.  She will be eligible for parole in 2024.

In Holder-Winfield’s state, as in most others, there is not statewide application of the death penalty.  The sentence request is left to the discrimination of the prosecutor who decides whether or not to pursue it.  This is where the discrepancy lies in the application.  But why have a need for a death penalty?

The why is a far more complex issue.   Some politicians mislead the public into thinking that the death penalty saves taxpayers the money it would cost to incarcerate a prisoner for life.  On average, it costs $40,000 annually to incarcerate one individual.  However, states still spend upwards of $4 million annually just do all the legal work associated with death penalty cases.  In some states this amount does not include the annual $40,000 to incarcerate individuals awaiting execution.

“The money is allocated incorrectly because our thinking is incorrect,” says Holder-Winfield.  He believes that if the investment was made on the front end in education, in reducing poverty, than there would be less need for these types of sentences as crimes because people would be better educated in general.

And that is ultimately what Representative Holder-Winfield has, as a policymaker, has taken up the challenge to do—educate the public when it comes to the death penalty and a host of other issues.  As a community activist, he recognizes the length of time it takes for change and chooses to spend his time talking to the people first rather than the politicians.

“I keep the perspective of the people in mind…you can’t fix a problem when you don’t know one exists.”

Friday ‘Flashblack:’From Love Is Strange to Rapper’s Delight: Remembering Sylvia Robinson, the “Mother of Hip-Hop”

From On The Rise Magazine,  September 30, 2011


She founded Sugar Hill Records, signed Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, formed Sugar Hill Gang and was responsible for the inception of what is considered to be the first mainstream successful song in Hip-Hop history, “Rapper’s Delight”.  However, amongst names like Russell Simmons, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and others who’ve helped to engineer the sound and the culture of Hip-Hop, she is rarely mentioned.  But, Sylvia Robinson knew music and the music business when most of the artists she was responsible for putting on the map were infants or yet to be born.

In the 1950’s, Sylvia earned her own place in music history as one-half of the duo Mickey & Sylvia, who topped the R&B charts in 1957 and made the Top 20 on Billboard’s Hot 100 with their song, “Love Is Strange.”  It is believed the song was penned by Bo Diddley, but this has been hotly contested over the years as are many songs of that time written by African Americans.  The song has been covered by Diddley, Buddy Holley, Peaches & Herb, Kenny Rogers & Dolly Parton (yes, a country version), and Paul & Linda McCartney.  The song was featured prominently in the 1987 film, Dirty Dancing.  B.o.B. sampled the song in “My Sweet Baby,” featured on B.o.B. Vs. Bobby Ray: The Mixtape, released in 2009.  

In 1973, Sylvia Robinson had solo success with a song entitled, “Pillow Talk.”  The song was an early disco tune that pushed the envelope of female sexuality before Donna Summer’s, “Love To Love You,” and Madonna’s, “Like A Virgin.”  Robinson had originally written the song with the hope that Al Green would record it.  However, noting  its risqué content, the soul singer refused, leaving Robinson to record it herself.  Her version sold two million copies, reaching #1 on the Billboard’s R&B chart and #3 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

In addition to being an accomplished performing artists, Sylvia Robinson was also a skilled songwriter and producer, having produced “Love On A Two-Way Street,” by The Moments in 1970, making her one of few women to be graced with the title (and credit) of “producer.”

By the late 1970’s, disco was suffering a backlash, Robinson and her husband Joe found themselves in dire financial circumstances, and their label, All Platinum Records, was on its way to becoming defunct. All that changed in 1978 when Robinson heard MC and DJ Lovebug Starski “playing music and saying things to the kids” in the club, the kids responded enthusiastically and Robinson thought, “that’s a great idea.”  

Soon after, the Robinsons partnered with Milton Malden to form Sugar Hill Records, named after a section of Harlem most people remember from Wesley Snipe’s box office flop of the same name.  Based in New Jersey, the label’s first group to sign comprised of three unknown talents (to the world and one another) from Englewood.  Inspired by Lovebug Starski, Sylvia Robinson masterminded their image and crafted what would become the first biggest selling Hip-Hop record in history.  “Rapper’s Delight” was recorded in one take and sold more than 8 million copies and charted at #4 of Billboard’s R&B chart (#36 on the Hot 100).

She followed up that success in 1982 with “The Message,” and “White Lines (Don’t Do It),” both by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, producing what are considered to be among the first socially conscious records in Hip-Hop.  Yeah, a SHE produced them (and was co-writer, as well).

Legal problems over unpaid royalties and financial shortages continued to follow the Robinsons, who sold Sugar Hill Records in 1994.  

While in the years since, VH1’s acclaimed Hip-Hop Honors, a show that honors legends of Hip-Hop, has recognized both of Sylvia Robinson’s discoveries, Sylvia , herself, has yet to be honored.  Ironically, her grandson, Darnell Robinson, is an MTV personality; MTV is the parent company of VH1.  In fact, since the show’s inception in 2004, only the females in Hip-Hop have been honored at all.  Again, this oversight by VH1 is another reminder that women get little respect in the world of Hip-Hop, even when they are almost single-handedly responsible for it getting mainstream airplay, sales, and most importantly, money.

Sylvia Robinson died on September 29, 2011 in New Jersey of congestive heart failure.  At age 76, she leaves behind an amazing legacy and a void in the business of music that will not be easily filled.  Her light will continue to shine through the glass ceiling, giving strength and guidance to those of us who aim to shatter it altogether.  She was an inspiration.  She was the “mother,” the “midwife,” the architect of mainstream Hip-Hop; and tonight, I tip my glass in her memory.


Check out some of Sylvia’s work on YouTube:

Listen to Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange”:

Listen to Sylvia’s “Pillow Talk”:

Listen to The Moments’ “Love On A Two-Way Street”:

Watch Sugar Hill Gang perform “Rapper’s Delight” on Soul Train:

Watch Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “The Message”:

Listen to Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s “White Lines (Don’t Do It)”:


10 Must-See Documentaries That Celebrate the African-American Experience

Published with Atlanta Blackstar, February 17, 2016


The stories of Black life in America are most popular this time of year as we celebrate the accomplishments of Black people in February.

The following list builds upon the 8 Black Documentary Films Everyone Should Watch, published in 2013 and features must-see documentaries for African-Americans that are useful year-round — not just in February. While not exhaustive, this list features many award-winning films and cover subjects and people Hollywood often ignore when telling our stories on the big screen.

10 Must-See Documentaries That Celebrate the African-American Experience

‘Overpoliced & Underprotected’: Black Girls, Women Matter, Too!

maxresdefault1Natasha McKenna, Sandra Bland, Taran Burke, Krystal Dixon, Amelia Boynton Robinson, Fannie Lou Hamer, Sharon Jones, Marlene Pinnock, Tarika Wilson….and the list goes on.

These are but a few of the names of women, Black women, who have been either beaten, bloodied, assaulted, murdered by or found dead while in the custody of law enforcement. Historically, when we address the issue of African-Americans and police brutality, we collectively  come to address the victim as a Black male.  Black female victims become an anomaly.  Still, it is worth mentioning that the founders of the Black Lives Matter organization are Black women, though many engaged in the movement itself silently (and some not so silently) identify with the primary Black male victims of police brutality.

Black women have long suffered at the hands of white supremacy in America, side by side with Black men. Black women were chained, whipped, raped, sodomized, sold, lynched, had water hoses and dogs turned on them. Black women and children were martyrs in the civil rights movement.  Black domestics were often sexaully assaulted by their male employers and then physically tormented by their white female counterparts as a result, and none of it was warranted.

These are just some of the things that black women have endured over time and for most, these long sufferings are embedded in our collective memory of Black sisterhood.

The incident at Spring Valley last fall was yet another stark reminder of this reality that often goes underexamined and unchecked and stirs up this pain that goes along with being black and female.  African-American women are fair-game for mistreatment by law enforcement, yet there is the assumption that somehow femininity shrouds black women in a cloak of protection from the type of brutalization suffered by black men.  This a false narrative and a misnomer.   Not only are black women as likely to suffer the indignity of police brutality, with it also comes the very real potential of suffering a sexual assault as well; and that is a frightening reality that no one is discussing.
The problem is that until something like what happened at Spring Valley High School happens once again and the media shines the spotlight on it, the plight of Black girls and women will again go unnoticed. We need to have meaningful dialog about the overpolicing of Black women and girls because like Elie Mystal wrote in Above Redline,I don’t know how many ‘F.U.s’ a black girl is supposed to get before somebody feels like it’s time to flip her upside down and beat her, but I know Dakota Fanning’s number is ‘unlimited,’” and that’s not right.  

We need to shift the narrative in our community and stop this ridiculous millennial jargon that “caping for black” women is “weak,” “simpin’” or emasculating because, truthfully, we haven’t time for that. The lives of Black girls and women matter, too.  Our community, and white America needs to stop seeing black feminism—-womanism as the enemy because the next time this happens, there may be no cameras, no witnesses, no Facebook, no Twitter, no one; just a rogue police officer and one more dead black girl.