2021 has been one major news development after another, dominating feeds and giving us yet another scenario to process. As the year winds down and the daily pace slows a bit, the downtime provides an opportunity for some reading and viewing time.
The USA Today Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team has put together a selection of books, broadcast programming and articles that inform your social consciousness — releases that may have gotten overlooked in your shuffle. So kick back, whether you’re chilling on a plane between destinations, bored at the in-laws or simply staying up late because you’re off for the next few days.
The Kaepernick Effect
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a knee during a preseason game in 2016 to protest racial inequality and police brutality — a move that would negatively impact his career and be used as a political lightning rod by former President Donald Trump.
“The Kaepernick Effect” (September 2021; The New Press) by Dave Zirin looks at how Kaepernick’s action inspired high school, college and professional athletes and coaches from across the country to take a knee. Readers will learn about both the support and vitriol they received for their decision, like that of Ohio high school student Rodney Axton, the first athlete to take a knee during a sporting event after Kaepernick.
Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual
Luvvie Ajayi Jones aimed to normalize fear in her book “Professional Troublemaker: The Fear-Fighter Manual” (Penguin Life; March 2021). Page by page, she grants people permission to fight their fear, speak the truth, live audaciously, and take up space – like her Nigerian grandmother did.
She offers an opportunity for people to affirm their lives, dreams and fierceness with advice, suggestions and examples of her own failures and successes. During a period that conceived the “Great Resignation,” Luvvie’s book serves as a guide for those who want to take ownership of their careers, financial potential, and impact.
Black Smoke: African Americans and the United States of Barbecue
Barbecue is one of the most quintessentially American foods — a mix of Indigenous cooking traditions, European meats and especially the artistry of African American chefs who developed the tradition over centuries. Decades before civil rights, barbecue was one of the few domains in which Black chefs were accorded both fame and acclaim.
But after noticing that Black chefs had been left out of the past few decades of barbecue shows and competition circuits, food historian Adrian Miller issued a corrective of sorts: a conversational and voluminously researched tome (University of North Carolina Press; April 2021) spiked with recipes and profiles of Black chefs that clearly lays out the African American roots of the cuisine.
Jimmie Lee Jackson
The late U.S. Congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis once cited the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in February 1965 as the impetus for the Selma to Montgomery March and the signing of the Voting Rights Act that same year. But who was Jimmie Lee Jackson?
This well-researched article published in May as part of USA Today’s Never Been Told series sheds light on this forgotten figure in the civil rights movement. It explores who Jackson was and the circumstances around his death, eight days after he was beaten by Alabama state troopers and fatally shot by one of them following a voting rights march in his hometown of Marion, Alabama.
Seven Days of 1961 series
You may have missed this series, launched in late September with a run through December 2021, or perhaps you only had time for a piece of it.
This team of USA TODAY Network reporters, led by Deborah Barfield Berry and Cristina Silva, spoke to freedom fighters about their work 60 years ago — tracing crucial moments that “set in motion a new era of civil rights that continues to inform social justice movements today.” Their multimedia project included a podcast series, graphic novels, feature stories, videos and other content covering seven pivotal days of protest in 1961.
Snapshots from an evictions crisis
The eviction crisis in the United States has not subsided as millions face eviction by year’s end. A joint effort in September by the USA Today Network How We Live team and NorthJersey.com takes an expansive look at tenants and landlords in several Mid-Atlantic states impacted by this dire situation.
The piece covers everything from a Rochester tenant who has to choose between eviction or living in a substandard apartment to a New Jersey landlord dependent on rental income for his own subsistence.
Summer of Soul
Summer 1969 included the legendary Woodstock music festival, held in upstate New York. During the same time, the Harlem Cultural Festival took place in New York City, which would be known as the “Black Woodstock.” However, it did not receive the attention given the former event.
That is until now with “Summer of Soul,” the debut documentary of Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the drummer and founding member of The Roots, which you can check out on Hulu. The new feature, made up of previously shot footage not seen in over 50 years, showcases the artists who performed during the six-week festival including Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.
You should consider jumping on Hulu (or texting that friend with a premium subscription) soon if you haven’t seen it. Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical project challenges any antiquated definition of “The American Dream.”
The film explores a Korean American family’s search for a new life and a new home — in 1980s rural Arkansas. The touching, award-winning movie set in the rugged Ozarks seemed to check even some of Hollywood’s understanding of an American story, as the Golden Globes judged it among “foreign language” films, thus not in contention for the program’s best-picture awards. In the American writer/director’s film, the characters mostly speak Korean in their dialogue. As Chung told USA TODAY in February, the beauty of the story is in its relatability for all audiences, regardless of cultural identity.
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad was a famous network of secret routes and used by African Americans in the 1800s to escape from enslavement. It is also the epic miniseries of the same name by filmmaker Barry Jenkins of “Moonlight” fame, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Colson Whitehead. Now showing on Amazon.
The 10-part series follows slaves Cora and Caesar fleeing from a Georgia planation via the railroad, which is reimagined as an actual physical railway complete with a conductor, while a white slave catcher is in dogged pursuit. USA Today gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars in a review in May, calling the series a “dark, gorgeous, slightly flawed but ultimately spectacular adaptation.”
My Name is Pauli Murray
Pauli Murray checked many boxes in her lifetime: lawyer, activist, poet, priest and non-binary. All those facets are examined in the acclaimed documentary, “My Name Is Pauli Murray,” by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, who also made the 2018 Ruth Bader Ginsburg doc “RBG.” Now showing on Amazon.
In a tight 93 minutes, the viewer gets to see Murray’s life unfold: a young girl from North Carolina struggling with her sexuality, being the only woman in her law school who would go on to influence Ginsburg and Thurgood Marshall, cofounding the National Organization for Women, and becoming the first African American woman to be ordained as an Episcopal priest.
High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America
When food writer Jessica B. Harris ate her way around West Africa in the 1970s, she found something she didn’t expect: “It tastes like grandma’s.” And so the Netflix show inspired by her book “High on the Hog” feels less like a food history than a culinary family reunion — a testament to African food traditions that remain very much alive in America, preserved and transformed by descendants of those who had their roots forcibly ripped away.
In beautifully shot travelogues, host Stephen Satterfield wanders from the fiery hot sauce and yams of West Africa to the pepper pots of Philadelphia and the rice and Gullah cooking of South Carolina. The show tracks not just Africa’s influence on American dinner plates, but the affinities that still run deep.
Being Different in the Delta
Juke joints. Jim Crow. Civil rights era injustices. The planet of the Deep South often is told in limited spheres — from those who are Black or those who are white. Yet, Chinese Americans are deeply rooted in the historically tumultuous and culturally complex Mississippi Delta, dating to the 1800s. And they are now speaking out. Their pain, their challenges, their triumphs in that region — and what they’ve taken from their history there to survive in a freshly divided America in which they’ve become open targets anew – is explored in the documentary “Being Different in the Delta.” Be prepared for frank discussion on how to confront rising anti-Asian sentiment, discussion that lays bare generational divides.
“Being Different in the Delta” runs 27 minutes, less time than it takes to go to the store and back, but unpacks a lot. It debuted in mid-November as a CBS Original on the CBS News free streaming platform and on YouTube.
“Passing” feels as though the film premiered in 1921 rather than 2021 with its black-and-white hues, as well as the tension between its Black and white-passing characters. The film’s grayness blurs color distinctions like the main characters living in the Jim Crow era. Now showing on Netfilx.
The story, based on Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, starts with a reunion between two childhood friends in an upscale New York City hotel. Irene and Clare, both light-skinned Black women, grew up together but lead drastically different adult lives. Clare (played by Ruth Negga) passes as white, enough so she’s married to a white man who openly despises Black people. Irene (played by Tessa Thompson), on the other hand, lives in a Harlem townhouse with her Black husband and sons.
As Irene and Clare rekindle their friendship, each woman struggles with her identity. They question what’s safer as well as pleasurable: hiding in plain sight in the lion’s den, or wearing one’s Blackness freely, both in a world where their skin color could be their demise.
Ricardo Kaulessar, Matthew Korfhage, Jasmine Vaughn-Hall, Kelly Powers, Sammy Gibbons and Jamesetta M. Walker are assigned to USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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