The Consequence of Cruelty

With shaky penmanship, Daniel Fitzpatrick vented his frustrations, pain, and ultimate surrender. Then he hung himself. He was only thirteen years old.

No parent should ever have to bury their child. Yet, this past Monday, that’s precisely what Daniel’s grieving family had to do. Daniel is one of many kids whose suicides punctuated the end of prolonged bullying and cruelty. Too often the ghosts of these children’s suffering are drowned out by the hectic events in society, but they haunt us, nonetheless. Yet, the problem continues and the pattern repeats year after year. If kids aren’t getting bullied to the point of suicide, they’re pressured into getting plastic surgery—which some parents actually oblige—but that’s another matter entirely.

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For the most part, adults are better-equipped to cope with negative criticism from peers, and yet, emotions and pride still get in the way sometimes, prompting irrational behavior. So for children like Daniel, with very little life experience and the raging hormones prevalent in most average early teenagers, it’s doubly difficult to put everything into perspective. The transition between childhood and adolescence is a confusing, frustrating, and frightening time. And though it’s natural for childhood friendships to dissipate over time, to the child it’s like their world is literally ending and all that’s left is the unknown as they struggle to find themselves. When relentless bullying is thrown into the mix, these feelings are intensified and combined with a sense of worthlessness. For some, it’s not the bullying alone that prompts suicidal behavior. Sometimes the bullying just happens to add to a preexisting tower of stress that finally takes its toll.

baseball-1396886__340 (Copy)That’s where parents, teachers, school counselors, and even suicide hotlines should come in, forming a cohesive alliance with the child’s best interests in mind. In my early teens, I benefited from many of these. Society is so fast paced that we often miss the signs that a person is nearing their breaking point.

Even the best parents in the world can miss the signs, especially when children become adept at putting on a brave face. Though I knew I could speak to my mother about anything, certain topics filled me with too much shame, and I knew she was going through so much at the time as it was. And so I bottled it all up until it nearly consumed me. Thankfully, school officials paid close attention and took swift action. It was a collaborative effort that I believe saved my life. Unfortunately, young Daniel didn’t have the same fortune.

Whereas I survived that dark tunnel, too many children and teens do not. Too many young lives are self-extinguished and I can’t help but wonder what each of those children could’ve grown to become, or what innovations they could have brought to our society. And so with each loss, our world’s potential dims. Each time I hear of such tragedies I try to brainstorm ways to remedy the problem.

Too often the problem is chalked up to children being cruel and is swept under the rug. Cruelty should NEVER be accepted, but yet children are taught to do just that. Much like some girls are still taught that if a boy hits them it’s probably because he likes them, thus setting the stage for a lifetime of unhealthy relationships.

Ideally, it would be beneficial if all children would be taught of the consequences of their actions, but since a good chunk of the adult population refuses to lead by example, I know this will never happen on such a broad scale. Still, the solution has to start with educating the very young not only about consequences, but also about respect, compassion, and self-worth. Those are the only things that can truly heal the mortal wounds of our society. Adults dehumanize each other on a daily basis, making it easier to hate and mistreat one another. There’s a growing population who place little, if any, value on human life. Some deem others expendable for the most senseless reasons. And the children are watching and mimicking this behavior, which plays out everywhere from the political arena and reality television, to social media, streets and schoolyards.

The other side of the coin is that a large part of our society struggles with mental illness, be it depression, anxiety, or various mood or behavioral disorders. There’s often a stigma attached to these, and so some avoid treatment so as to fit with the “normal” crowd. Yet, according to 2014 statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 18.2% of the adult American population suffers from some sort of mental illness. Clearly this is an issue that needs to be addressed with recognition and proper care. Yet, fast-paced living and the increasing difficulty for some to make ends meet places this need lower on the totem pole of priorities than it should be.

In the meantime, there’s something we can all do to potentially avoid other senseless suicides. That’s simply to be kinder and a little more patient with one another. Though it may not seem like it from outward appearances, any given person could be at the brink of their breaking point. Consider the power of your words and actions and know that they have the ability to push someone over the edge, or help them find comfort and strength to endure another day. We must also do better to serve as a positive example for the young. The children may be our future, but the future is predicated on our past and present. It’s crucial that we act accordingly.

If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with thoughts of suicide, speak to a trusted individual or call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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My Thoughts on Outcast

promo-outcast (Copy) I don’t usually get to watch a lot of TV these days, so I don’t normally get Cinemax, but I signed up temporarily for the sole purpose of watching Outcast (created by Robert Kirkman), and I certainly don’t regret it. What I do regret is that I didn’t start watching sooner. Nonetheless, I’m thrilled that I finally had the opportunity to catch up on all the current episodes. Now, I eagerly await the last two of the season.

Throughout his life, Kyle Barnes (Patrick Fugit) has been plagued as his loved ones suffer from demon possession. He and Reverend Anderson (Philip Glenister) unite for a mission to fight the demons and determine why they’re targeting the people in Kyle’s life. Kyle is desperate for answers so he can get his family—a catatonic mother (Julia Crockett), an estranged wife Allison (Kate Lyn Sheil), and young daughter Amber (Madeleine McGraw)—back. He deeply values the family that remains, namely his foster sister Megan Holter (Wrenn Schmidt), with whom he bonded over the childhood torment unleashed by their foster brother Donnie (Scott Porter). Schmidt does a fantastic job conveying the lingering devastation that often follows such trauma, yet this vulnerability is balanced by her obvious strength and determination to protect her family.

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Meanwhile, the reverend faces a desperation of his own as he realizes his exorcisms weren’t as effective as first believed. And so begins his tailspin descent into desperation and jealousy when he realizes that Kyle has the ability to expel demons, an ability that comes naturally, yet becomes reluctant to use it since it sometimes leaves people in a vegetative state, much like his mother. The dynamic between Kyle and Reverend Anderson is fascinating to watch as ensuing events play out.

Mystery and grotesque imagery hits you from the very beginning of the first episode, but as the characters and plot steadily develops, it becomes clear that Outcast doesn’t solely rely on gore to incite thrill and surprise. The intrigue and creepiness factor builds up with each subsequent episode, gradually drawing you in. Before you know it, you’re ensnared in the mystery, working along with Kyle and Reverend Anderson to determine who’s possessed by evil and who isn’t.

I grew up exploring a wide variety of horror, almost everything from Night of the Living Dead and Nightmare on Elm Street to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser franchise—so I’m not easily spooked, nor am I easily squeamish when it comes to gore. The element of horror that does scare me witless is the evolution of a character as his or her moral lantern gradually wavers, or dies out unexpectedly, transforming them into an unpredictable force of darkness beneath a poised façade.

Outcast has this element in spades, though I believe it’s most prevalent in characters Blake (Lee Tergeson), Mildred (Grace Zabriskie), and Sidney (Brent Spiner). Blake, a possessed officer, is eerily nonchalant and boastful after brutalizing his friend’s wife. Tergeson is so convincing, I think many people would avoid him if they saw him on the street. Mildred, an elderly churchgoer—also possessed—has an unpredictable viciousness that one is uncertain how or when it will break the surface. Yet, Zabriskie interweaves a hint of frailty in an otherwise fierce and fearsome character.

Aside from Blake, Spiner’s portrayal of Sidney frightened me the most, particularly as his sadistic nature escalates in episode six. In episode eight, he really cranks up the creep factor as his horrific backstory is unfurled, revealing the possibility that in some cases, perhaps demon possession works as a bizarre sort of counterbalance for some people.

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Spiner’s masterful performance is utterly chilling and downright disturbing (as it should be) partially because his portrayal of the lowest type of depraved individual is done so effectively. The evolution of his character’s demeanor and storyline takes a breakneck twist, yet the transition is carefully measured. The best way I can describe it is that in the time it takes for him to traverse a hallway and enter the next room he loses his mask. Only it doesn’t fall off. It melts revealing the monstrous persona underneath. The chemistry Spiner has with Fugit, Glenister, and Zabriskie, all remarkable actors in their own right, is pure perfection. Over all, the entire cast brings great tangibility to each of their roles and play very well off of one another.

Part of Outcast’s brilliance is how it gradually humanizes some the demons, showcasing some of their boundaries as well as—in some cases—their ability to reason. Conversely, in numerous instances Outcast demonstrates the fact that evil doesn’t discriminate between demon, or human and that the latter are capable of unleashing their own brand of horror without supernatural help, often while upholding deceptive facades in the process. This makes it hard to differentiate the possessed from the non-possessed. In many ways it mirrors our struggle to determine such differences between honorable and deceitful people in reality. I think it also reflects the psychological struggle between the superego and the id, and the metaphorical demon in us all.

All in all, Outcast is a phenomenal series with a dynamic cast, multi-dimensional characters and intriguing plot depth. I’m thrilled that it’s already been picked up for a second season. I’ll be watching!

Outcast airs Fridays on Cinemax (check your local listings for showtimes).


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Presumption of Guilt & the Question of Noncompliance

The footage included in this recent Washington Post article lays bare the presumption of guilt too many officers have black citizens. On June 15, 2015 Breaion King was violently arrested by police in Austin, Texas; an encounter during which she was body-slammed to the pavement. Afterward, while in a squad car, a second officer stated that cops are suspicious of blacks due to their “violent tendencies” and “intimidating” appearance.

Nonetheless, some have criticized King for not immediately complying with the officer. This is a criticism I see often regarding many cases of police brutality. Given the ongoing tensions between law enforcement and civilians, I agree that it’s unwise to risk making an officer more nervous or belligerent than he probably already is. However, the actions and statements of the officers were downright reprehensible and I believe they should be removed from the force.

I don’t claim to know exactly why King hesitated in following the officer’s commands. Maybe she was confused, nervous, or afraid. I can’t speculate exactly what was happening in her mind, but I understand that as humans, regardless of color, we sometimes lose our rationality when faced with an intimidating situation. Noncompliance isn’t always a result of disrespect or an attitude problem. I know this firsthand based on an experience my husband Max (my then-boyfriend/legal alien) and I had with police way back when he and I were dating:

Nearly twenty years ago, four white officers (three men, one woman) stated they were searching for a shooting suspect in my old neighborhood in East New York in Brooklyn. No suspect description was given, only that there had been shots in the area. Max and I had already been parked upon our return from an evening out when the officers approached. Though I know we had done nothing wrong, my fight or flight response definitely kicked in. I remained as composed as possible as we were separated, frisked, and questioned individually on opposite sides of Max’s car. They didn’t seem to believe Max and I were boyfriend and girlfriend as they repeatedly asked how we knew one another, and why we were in the neighborhood, as though expecting the answers to change. Neither of us had a criminal record, something that was verified when the officers ran our credentials. The search (of us and the vehicle) turned up nothing and yet we were still treated as if we were guilty.

For the most part, I had pretty much been set aside once my ID verified I’d been truthful about my address (where I lived with my parents), but they continued to hassle Max and seemed to delight in doing so. I’d been ordered to sit on the almost nonexistent rear bumper and sternly instructed not to look at him. The female officer had to tell me this twice because my concern got the best of me, leading me to unintentionally defy the initial request. She seemed irritated that she had to repeat herself.

I didn’t understand what harm could come of me watching their interaction with my boyfriend. That’s when it hit me. I wasn’t in control of the situation. Even my eyes were under someone else’s command. And though I found my awkwardly seated position uncomfortable I just had to bear it so as not to alarm the officers. This made me even more anxious as wild scenarios played in my mind.

This all happened late in the evening with virtually no witnesses, except for a man who’d later introduce himself as a lawyer who happened to be passing through the area when he saw our situation and decided to watch the events play out from across the intersection. Meanwhile, I heard the other officers berating and repeatedly insulting Max, who’s white, for being in the “wrong neighborhood.” It hurt me to hear him being treated that way, though he took it in stride even after they seized his small utility knife and tossed it deep into some bushes. I was angered by their bullying behavior, but felt powerless to object.

After what must’ve been ten minutes, though it felt like much longer, we were free to go. As the police pulled off, the lawyer approached and asked if we were okay. Upon hearing the details of what transpired, he stated that the officers had behaved unprofessionally and offered his legal services. We ultimately declined to pursue a case. Nonetheless, to this day, Max and I both agree that the officers were likely trying to incite a more volatile conclusion to the encounter. Max, who is now a proud US citizen, was more irritated by the situation than anything and felt the male officers behaved like jerks, but stated that the police back in Russia, his homeland, were much more extreme.

Despite the fact that this happened so long ago, I still feel dread and sadness when I think about it. Even so, I’m aware we’re among the lucky ones who suffered no more than brief inconvenience and mild humiliation. There are too many today who don’t survive their encounters, or do so with severe physical and emotional trauma.

It’s easy to watch a situation from a distance and judge how a person should’ve reacted. However, the human thought process varies from one person to the next and is shaped by the prior experiences of each individual. And sometimes those experiences can overrule logic. Perhaps incidents of excessive force, as in the case of Breaion King, could be avoided if officers are better vetted psychologically and given proper training to allow them to better differentiate genuine threats and intentionally defiant people from merely nervous individuals. It would also help if there were clearer guidelines as to how each situation should be addressed with a minimal risk to both citizen and officer. There needs to be a mutual respect between law enforcement and community and that can only take place with reform, balance, and a higher degree of trust than currently exists.

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rose-1273740_1920The atrocity in Orlando, Florida has brought forth a question that frequently arises each time evil rears its ugly head. I’ve addressed it in some of my fiction and poetry, but I’m writing it straight out in case it may be too esoteric for some to decipher in a time when the need for clarity is urgent.

What’s become of humanity?

This question once made me wonder long and hard, figuring people have somehow devolved over time. Yet, the more I analyzed the landscape of the human condition, I the more I realized that at its basic level, humanity is just as it’s always been. We build. We grow. We collide. We destroy. After all, humanity is a derivative of a universe that in its very nature is violent, mysterious, yet efficient at constantly expanding and creating. From a scientific standpoint we are kin to the blazing celestial bodies that set the velvet sky ablaze at night.

With that in mind, it makes sense that humans share the same characteristics as the stars; we’re born, we shine for a time, we burn out, but some go supernova, leaving a black hole in the hearts of many. Some allow this hole to expand and consume them until all they know is darkness and hatred. Others patch the void with light and hope. It may shrink, but it never fully heals. Collectively, we persevere since that is also in our nature. The universe never ceases and neither does humanity.

While we share many remarkable traits with the stars, there’s some anomaly (or blessing, if you will) that makes humans vastly unique from our celestial cousins. It is the gift of consciousness, the gift of choice to determine whether to build or destroy, to grow mentally and emotionally or remain stunted. It is the gift that endows us with the capacity to love while enduring the unfathomable. It is the same gift that presents us with the opportunity to steer our own destinies, to become more than inert fragments of the universe, hurtling toward destruction. It is a gift that humanity undervalues far too often, yet each day we awaken, it remains there just waiting for us to utilize it. And therein lies hope.

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ROOTS Review


ROOTS isn’t a film one watches for enjoyment or entertainment, but for enlightenment and perspective. This was true for the original and doubly so for the remake, which is much more graphic and intense. Some have argued, perhaps too graphic. Though there are scenes I could have gone without watching, I believe the right decisions were made given the current scope of our society. Audiences aren’t nearly as guarded as they were back in the 70s. Today, there is a lot more exposure to graphic violence and gore across various media platforms. So in many ways, the presentation speaks to the world in a language that is well understood and has maximum impact.

Having seen the original ROOTS, I knew I was in for an intense emotional journey from the jump. I settled in and braced myself as the title screen emerged to Alex Haley’s narration (voiced by Laurence Fishburne), which contained the poignant line:

“The two most important days of a man’s life is the day he is born, and when he understands why.”

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Babs Olusanmokun as Omoro Kinte

Shortly thereafter Omoro Kinte (Babs Olusanmokun) appears and meets such an understanding—his newborn son, Kunta Kinte (Malachi Kirby). There is a palpable love and tenderness as the proud parents, Omoro and Binta (Nokuthula Ledwaba) revel in their son’s presence, the air filled with Binta’s soothing and haunting lullaby that would later comfort Kunta in the long days ahead, no doubt filling him with bittersweet nostalgia of simpler times. Omoro holds his newborn son up towards the starry sky and declares:

“Behold! The only thing greater than you!”

It is an act that would reverberate halfway across the world through succeeding generations long after an adolescent Kunta is sold into slavery by a rival clan shortly after completing his rite of passage. Malachi Kirby proves himself a capable and outstanding actor who gives Kunta Kinte great depth, dimension and fire. Kunta’s capture comes shortly after a debate with his parents. He wants to attend university, they want him to adhere to the tradition Mandinka way of life—in which family is paramount.

What follows is an unflinching glimpse of some of the hardships slaves endured during the Middle Passage. Shame, depression, and eventual defiance come over the captured men and women. They plan a mutiny to the harmonic cadence of song and the fervent beating of a drum. A violent crescendo erupts, but is brought to a halt with a single, yet devastating blast. Once on land, Kunta is quickly sold to a plantation owner.

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Malachi Kirby & Forest Whitaker as Kunta and Fiddler

Kunta struggles to adjust to the turn his life has taken, yet his defiance remains constant. Having been taken away from all he knows he clings to his birth name like a shield when the slave owners try to replace it. While it strengthens his dignity, it does nothing to protect his flesh in a reenactment of the iconic scene LeVar Burton made memorable in the original production.

Malachi Kirby had big shoes to fill and did an outstanding job in conveying the transition from steadfast rebel to a fractured spirit. This part earned the most tears from me, not just because of the sheer brutality, but also the symbolism used to convey his fading identity, which he later maintains covertly.

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Kirby & Corinealdi as Kunta and Belle

As the years elapse, Kunta isn’t easily deterred and makes several attempts to flee, and even gets far enough to join the British and fight the Americans in the Revolutionary War before his ability to run is literally severed. He finds love with Belle (Emayatzy Corinealdi), the woman who heals him and eventually finds himself on the path of fulfilling his Mandinka destiny in spite of bondage. The Kinte line expands with the birth of his daughter Kizzy, played by (Saniyya Sidney, Emyri Crutchfield, ), to whom he passes down his warrior skills.

Kizzy, a spirited young girl, develops a close friendship with the slave master’s daughter, who teaches her to read and write. Yet, it remains clear that fiery possessiveness lurks beneath Missy’s charity and kindness. This plays out several times, including during their curious adolescent years when Missy states “It’s my right,” referring to her desire to indulge her curiosity regarding the appearance of Kizzy’s womanhood. It’s an unsettling three-word declaration that will later return to haunt, and nearly destroy, Kizzy after she is sold to slave owner Tom Lea (Jonathan Rhys Meyers).

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Regé-Jean Page as Chicken George

The Kinte bloodline expands anew, via the devastating circumstances Tom inflicts upon her. Their son, Chicken George (Regé-Jean Page), grows to train Tom’s roosters for cockfights. He eventually marries and fathers several children before he is eventually blindsided and sent to England as payment for Tom’s gambling debt.

By the time he returns, twenty years have elapsed and his mother Kizzy (Anika Noni Rose) is dead, his children all grown, some with kids of their own. His wife is weary, yet relieved. In another parallel to Kunta’s life, George heads off to the Civil War to help fight against the Confederates alongside Cyrus (T.I.). Meanwhile, his son Tom (Sedale Threatt, Jr.) assists Nancy Holt (Anna Paquin), fiance and spy against Confederate soldier Frederick Murray (Lane Garrison), son of the current slave owner of George’s family. Nancy and her mute accomplice are killed for their treachery. Even after the Union wins the war, and the slaves were said to be free, they still had to endure loopholes and opposition set forth by those unwilling to let go of the power and way of life to which they’d grown accustomed.

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Threatt Jr. & Paquin as Tom Murray & Nancy Holt

The final moments of this spectacular four-day journey brings viewers full circle with the birth of Tom’s child, the first to be born free. Tom inquires how to name his daughter the right way, seeking to follow the tradition of his forefathers. As the scene fades, the late Alex Haley, seated at his desk, reflects on his ancestors, who appear before him against the backdrop of their respective eras. The boundaries of time dissolve as Haley joins them all in the great beyond. Powerful, profound, breathtaking, and devastatingly beautiful.

ROOTS has led me to ponder the heartbreak that befell, and is currently befalling, so many families around the globe as a result of slavery; a crisis that’s still very much alive today. It successfully conveyed the aftershock of devastation endured by those no longer alive to tell their tales. This production was met with much controversy. It has been said that the topic of slavery is being used to further oppress the descendants of those who endured it. Upon watching ROOTS from beginning to end, I was reminded that my ancestors endured subhuman treatment with superhuman strength and that such strength is carried on through the succeeding generations, including the present. Though my spirit weeps for what my ancestors went through, I feel empowered by their immense fortitude.

The aim of LeVar Burton, Mark Wolper, and their team was for this incarnation of ROOTS to inspire a national discussion about the topic, especially since our culture is still experiencing the same hate and ignorance that contributed to the profitability and popularity of slavery. I believe they’ve succeeded.


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Roots Reboot: Controversy and Consciousness


“No more slave movies!”

That was one declaration among the commentary I’ve seen in response to the Roots remake announcement. I’ve also come across comments calling for a protest of A&E and its sister networks (History, and Lifetime) which will air the miniseries on Memorial Day evening. Personally, I feel that it’s unfair for one to discourage others from watching something based on their own disapproval.

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“Kunta Kinte: Past and Present,” by Shykia Bell

It’s not unusual for people scoff at the notion of a film or show being remade. Perhaps it’s because so often it doesn’t do justice to the original. In that regard, it’s no surprise that the announcement of the Roots remake was met with uncertainty and in some cases outright disapproval. There are some whom are loyal to the original, which became a classic back when it was released in 1977. Conversely, there are those who oppose to the reboot for a multitude of reasons—most notably, the fact that slavery has been the primary topic when it comes to the exploration of black history.


Original Kunta Kinte, LeVar Burton

There are also those whom are critical of the original, citing the fact that the source material—Roots the novel by Alex Haley—was a combination of fact and fiction, something Haley, himself had admitted. Given that Roots will air on the History channel, it’s apparent that some people are disappointed that any amount of fiction will make its way to History Channel’s airwaves. Yet, I think it’s worth mentioning that Roots isn’t the first piece of historical fiction to be broadcast on the History Channel. Sons of Liberty is one such program that falls under that category, not to mention the reality-based shows that aren’t entirely historical, if at all.

That said, the revamp of Roots is timely and relevant for many reasons, including the broadening divide in today’s culture, particularly within—and as a result of—the current political climate as well as the rampant racial injustice still festering within. While a certain presidential candidate proclaims that they want to make “America Great Again,” and one of his rivals has countered that “America has never stopped being great,” an important part of history seems to be getting loss in the cracks. While America is a great country and there is no place else I’d rather live, it hasn’t always been great for everyone. To insinuate otherwise is to take an eraser to this country’s past, leaving a void in which we’ll inevitably revisit by way of ignorance.


LeVar Burton with Malachi Kirby as Kunta Kinte

I’ve already seen examples of how historical lessons are being candy coated for our future generation; in one case, students were taught that Africans came to this country in pursuit of a better life. This in itself is indicative of the need to continue to tell stories like Roots.

Though some may argue that it isn’t completely factual, it nevertheless serves a purpose to generate an interest in this segment of not just black history, but American history. Films like Roots aren’t meant to be the sole form of education about this sensitive topic, but rather a catalyst to inspire viewers to delve deeper into history and perhaps learn something about themselves along the way. Sometimes, artistic license is taken in order to achieve that aim by telling the story in a way that translates well to modern audiences in the allotted running time, just as director Steve McQueen did with 12 Years a Slave.

It’s been a long time since I saw the original Roots, but it has stuck with me up until now. So, when I first heard the news of the remake I had some mixed feelings at first. Yet, when I learned that LeVar Burton and Mark Wolper—son of David L. Wolper, who directed the original—were at the helm, co-producing the project, I immediately had faith that the remake would be handled with the utmost respect. Both men have clearly expressed their passion and dedication to the project and I look forward to seeing the results of all the work they, the cast, and crew, undoubtedly put into it.

In closing, I would like to state that while I agree that there should be equal focus on the era that predated African and African American slavery, there needs to be a viral demand to have such stories represented in the mainstream. This is a topic I plan to address in a future blog post.

For further reading about the impending premiere and to gain insight into the minds of the cast and producers, I recommend the following articles:

‘Roots’: Cast & Producers Talk Relevance to Today (Deadline Hollywood)

‘Roots,’ Remade for New a Era (New York Times)


What is your opinion about the Roots remake? Do you plan to tune in?



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Banned Books Week Highlight: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks



Medical advancements are often a derivative of the suffering of others. And often, society reaps the benefits without knowing the names or histories of those who made it possible for us to treat and avoid certain medical conditions. A 16-year-old Rebecca Skloot understood this when one day during a biology class when the topic of HeLa cells were being taught. In conclusion of the lesson, the name of a woman was written on the blackboard and soon erased. No other information was given, except that she was a black woman.

Her name was Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot was immediately intrigued and in her words, obsessed, with learning more about Henrietta. From that moment she was determined to research more about this mystery woman and subsequently ensure that she wouldn’t just remain a footnote in history. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is the culmination of roughly a decade-long journey that entailed tireless work, including the delicate matter of reaching out to Henrietta’s next of kin. Skloot inevitably encountered challenges along the way, but persevered. And speaking of challenges…

This book has recently been challenged by a Tennessee mother of a 15-year-old high school sophomore who deemed the book “pornographic.” Having read the work, including the so-called offending passages, this strikes me as preposterous for a number of reasons. First, although the description is vivid in detail it is mainly informative and not at all written with the intent to arouse. Secondly, the mention of Henrietta’s husband’s infidelity and resulting venereal diseases is just that, a mention. Thirdly, this day in age the average 15-year-old picks up more offensive language and spectacle on the street or by watching the VMAs. I certainly don’t think the accounts briefly mentioned in the book is enough to justify depriving readers from learning the once buried history of one of the most important contributors to modern science.

Henrietta’s cells (HeLa cells) aided scientists in cancer and AIDS research, gene mapping, Polio vaccine development, and various other scientific endeavors. Though the medical advancements achieved with the HeLa cells are celebrated all over the world, the road to scientific victory has a checkered history peppered with injustice and immorality. Skloot highlights some of the experiments used on terminally ill patients and the details read like a horror story, mainly because in many ways it is.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks happens to be one of my most recent reads and one of the most informative books I’ve come across in years. Until recently, I hadn’t heard of Ms. Lacks or her contributions medical industry which subsequently saved countless lives. Sometimes I take for granted how crude medical treatments were over half a century ago. Add to this the factor of racial segregation and inequality and the situation becomes even more complicated.

The book repeatedly toggles between Skloot’s research and communication with Henrietta’s family; Henrietta’s upbringing, life as a young adult, illness, treatment, and subsequent death. The transitions between these sections are a little jumpy at times, but are nonetheless full of detail and provide great insight into the process of cellular biomechanics. And though the scientific details are as informative as a textbook, it is offset by the novel-like descriptions and anecdotes about Henrietta, her family and friends. The latter is done with such intimacy that I couldn’t help but empathize with Henrietta and her family as though I knew them personally.

Skloot was very thorough in her research and did an outstanding job sharing the rich history she learned about Henrietta, including her ancestry and the turbulent history regarding her descendants. I think every adult should read this book since they’ve more than likely reaped the benefits derived from Henrietta’s unwitting medical contributions.

Have you read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks? If so, feel free to comment below with your thoughts.

This blog entry concludes my banned/challenged book highlights in honor of Banned Book Week, which continues through October 3rd. Here’s a link in case you missed my previous banned book highlight, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: The Bluest Eye



Pecola Breedlove is a tragic character who lives a tortured life both at the hands of family as well as her peers. She covets blue eyes, fair skin and blonde hair, figuring that having such traits would make her beautiful. Pecola was, and remains, a highly relatable character thanks in large part to media perpetuation of unrealistic beauty standards.

Yet, The Bluest Eye is so much more than a story of one girl’s desire to look different. There is a devastating underlying reason that sparks such a desire, one that exposed the damage an infectious disease such as racism has on American culture, particularly black American culture. It haunts the reader’s mind long after the final passage is read.

The Bluest Eye, set in Ohio after the Great Depression, is certainly not an easy read due to the novel’s strong subject matter and graphic elements. In it, Toni Morrison unflinchingly tackles the issues of racism and the resulting poor self-esteem among black girls and the damaging repercussions it has especially when paired with the devastating occurrence of mental and sexual abuse. The story is primarily narrated by Claudia MacTeer, with whose family Pecola temporarily resides.

There is an interesting dichotomy between Pecola and Claudia from the very beginning. Claudia loathes the “beauty” Pecola covets. This stems from an unfavorable experience with a doll that Claudia grows to hate and soon she superimposes this hate on the very people the doll was modelled from, and for; White girls. This hatred is her coping mechanism for the fact that society considers features, like that which the doll was modelled after, more beautiful than that of girls like Claudia and, of course, Pecola.

The brilliant juxtaposition of each section of the story with excerpts from the children’s book Dick and Jane clashes with the harsh reality of impoverished black America. Each time the excerpt is repeated, it appears increasingly run on, without space, without order; mirroring the mounting chaos the Claudia witnesses and Pecola endures.

The recurring theme of tarnished innocence at the hands of adults who have betrayed children’s trust makes The Bluest Eye one of the most heartbreaking novels I’ve ever read. There are so many damaged girls like Pecola in reality. And like Pecola, some just don’t have the fight in them (perhaps due to being programmed to think that their appearance makes them inferior and less of a human), and so they crumble. In the end, Pecola struggles to use a juvenile perception of love to rationalize the ultimate injustice she’s suffered. I admit, that last part took a while for me to digest since it’s as disturbing as it is tragic.

I first read this novel in high school and it continues to resonate with me even now. Shamefully, so many years after The Bluest Eye was published, the ridiculous correlation between one’s appearance and degree of beauty continues to this day. For that reason, and for many others—including the disenfranchisement of certain societal groups and the subsequent fallout—this novel remains a relevant classic.

Have you read The Bluest Eye? If so, leave a comment with your thoughts. I’d love to read your opinion.

Please check back tomorrow for my next banned/challenged book selection. In case you missed my last one, click here to read my impression of Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: Nineteen Eighty-Four



Nineteen Eighty-Four is set in a province in Oceania in a time of endless war where widespread government surveillance is commonplace. Society is ruled under a political system known as Ingsoc, or English Socialism enforced by the elite Inner Party which enjoys special privileges. The laws they enforce include the prevention and discouragement of individuality and independent thought.

Part of their arsenal include the Ministry of Truth, which the main character Winston Smith works for. The Ministry of Truth is a contradiction in terms since its main purpose is to generate propaganda and constantly revise history.

Winston, whose job is to rewrite past news articles to make sure the Party never appears incompetent or incorrect in its promises or assessments. Winston, though skilled (perhaps overly so) and efficient at his job, hates the government and fantasizes about a rebellion. Yet, his fantasy clashes with his fascination to learn the truth behind all the rewritten historical articles he’s been writing. Such desires are dangerous, especially if they were to be discovered by the Thought Police, who’s been known to punish defiance with death. Nonetheless, Winston can’t resist his yearning and so begins a chilling adventure that promises romance, mystery and misery, but what truths will he uncover?

Like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Nineteen Eighty-Four is definitely one of the books that stayed with me the most. I occasionally think about it when seeing how technology divides as well as connects. Some critics lambasted the cruel and sexual elements included in the novel and I can understand why this would have been challenged in the era in which it was written. I believe it was Orwell’s intention to disturb readers by underscoring humanity’s most primitive instincts that arise when faced with the deprivation of individual choice; instincts that spark the desire to rebel and seek out methods of self-preservation. Just as disturbing, perhaps even more so, is the government’s way of dealing with individuals whom are bold enough to act out and how easily it rationalizes its extreme measures. This becomes evident in the heartbreaking conclusion, the culmination of a series of cruel mind games.

Still, there is no denying the grander prophetic message beyond those elements; that message being how the media manipulates public opinion and creates a social dichotomy that includes friends and family. The public is brainwashed to form a greater loyalty to the powers that be than to their own loved ones. Furthermore, they are manipulated into hating a certain political party’s enemies and their affiliates, namely a man named Emmanuel Goldstein, in a ritual called the Two Minutes of Hate. During one such session, Winston finds himself unable to rationalize why he hates Goldstein, but nonetheless spews his hatred as a contagious reaction from the crowd. Furthermore, he finds another target for his hatred and imagines committing a heinous offense, but he doesn’t act on it.

Orwell brilliantly depicted the disturbing human nature of pack mentality. A recurring theme is how citizens sacrificed their own convictions, among other things, in exchange for compliance. For the most part, citizens have learned to ignore their human instincts and desires so they can continue their existence. But Winston soon realizes that merely existing isn’t enough. He takes chances for the opportunity to live. Through his defiance, he’s able to sample the sweet taste of humanity, but it comes at a price that threatens his survival and the woman he grows to care for.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe this book was written back in 1948. Many elements of the story are prevalent in our society today; the confusing spin of propaganda, extremely unruly and downright horrible children whose parents are afraid of due to government interference regarding discipline. For this reason, children are among the most allegiant to Big Brother, Oceania’s mysterious leader, since the government gives them liberty to rebel against their parents. And who could forget Big Brother’s oppressive eye; the omnipresence of cameras, watching every minute detail of the citizens’ lives. Any sign of deviation from the law could lead to the torture or death of the offending citizen. One of the most disturbing parts of Nineteen Eighty-Four is how one’s own independent intelligence could lead to their undoing. It’s one of the tactics that has led to the establishment’s success; getting people too confused and too afraid to think.

Have you read Nineteen Eighty-Four? If so, please comment below. I’d love to read your opinion.

Join me as I highlight my next banned/challenged book selection, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

Click here if you missed my last post in which I highlighted The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

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Banned Books Week Highlight: The Master and Margarita

MasterMargaritaMikhail Bulgakov was defiant to say the least. He wrote The Master and Margarita between 1928 and 1940, during the anti-religious campaign in the Soviet Union. It wasn’t published until 1967, twenty-seven years after Bulgakov’s death, and was censored even then. To this day, I’m sure some may be intimidated by the novel’s dark themes and the fact that the devil, himself, is one of the main characters. Yet, there is a subtext that goes far beyond the plot’s macabre and mischievous elements. Master and Margarita is a rich tale of love, reluctant duty and subsequent guilt, a critique of social, political and literary elitism, and the mercy of amnesty.

The novel’s rich, multi-layered plot is interwoven with history, religion and politics and shifts between two settings; 1930’s Moscow and Pontius Pilate’s court in Judea.

In Moscow, a mysterious stranger named Professor Woland strolls through Patriarch’s Ponds and overhears a young poet and an editor contemplating philosophy and the existence of Jesus. He takes interest and contributes to the discussion. What he has to say has the pair questioning his sanity…then their own. It quickly becomes evident that Woland is much more than he appears, and dangerously so. It is a fact that leads to the demise of one member of the intellectual pair, but not before he speaks of Pontius Pilate and the execution of Jesus (Yeshua Ha-Notsri) as though he were there at the time. Soon, Woland’s entourage—a valet, a hitman, a witch, and a talking, vodka swigging, gun-toting black cat who walks on two legs—emerges. Madness ensues and the city is turned upside down as Woland torments the residents by using their own vices against them.

Woland’s path intersects with a tormented author known as The Master (whose novel about Pontius Pilate was harshly judged by critics even though it was rejected for publishing) and his lover, Margarita, who happens to be unhappily married. Prior to Woland’s arrival the lovers were torn apart by The Master’s depression following the attack on his work. Margarita is distraught when the Master suddenly vanishes. She accepts a dubious proposition from the mysterious stranger in hopes of learning more regarding her lover’s whereabouts. Margarita undergoes a bizarre transformation as well as a cruel test that only true love could give one the tenacity to endure.

This storyline is interwoven with what is essentially The Master’s book brought to life; the unfolding of Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua. Through his interrogations, Pilate comes to realize that Yeshua is not a mere criminal.  He becomes intrigued by the prisoner who knows personal details about him. His fascination grows after Yeshua heals his severe headache and correctly assesses his emotional state. Pilate becomes conflicted when he is forced to confirm the prisoner’s death sentence. Bound by his duty, and his fear of taking Yeshua’s place should he not comply, he reluctantly follows what has been requested of him. Despite having washed his hands of the matter, he is nonetheless haunted by guilt for hundreds of years.  In the end, both storylines converge for a conclusion that is poignant and powerful.

Master and Margarita is the kind of book one could read multiple times and get something new out of it. I admire Bulgakov’s ability to satirize government policy and literary critics while prompting the reader to consider theological philosophy. He achieves this with an intriguingly balanced combination of romance, comedy and horror. I first read this novel over twelve years ago and admit that with age, maturity, and a firmer grasp of Russian culture, I’ve grown to better comprehend and appreciate its remarkable depth.

Have you read The Master and Margarita? If so, feel free to add your thoughts in the comment section.

Click here to check out my next banned book selection,  Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.


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