We have to recognize each other’s cultures, so we understand what pisses each other off.
— Whoopi Goldberg
Back in 1974, Beverley Johnson was the first black model to appear on the cover of American Vogue. Now, as she remembers that moment, her smile suggests a mix of emotions. “At the time,” she says, “I was angry.” That is, she says, though she was celebrated for being the “first,” and proud of it, she remains frustrated that her achievement is touted as such. “I was a model,” she insists, not only or even principally an African American model. And still, here she is, in The Black List: Volume Three, going over again what it meant and means to be that first black model on Vogue‘s cover.
Johnson’s interview is typical of this latest installment in The Black List Project, an ongoing series of photographs and interviews assembled by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell. That is, she situates herself in black American history, not only in reference to her achievements as an adult, but also thinking about her childhood, and the ways her family’s experiences affected hers.
She recalls her awareness of the Civil Rights Movement, framed by her father’s concerns that Martin Luther King, Jr.’s exhortations were too insistent. Johnson remembers feeling inspired by what she saw on TV, even as her steelworker, resolutely focused on supporting his wife and children, was “fearful that what [King] was talking about was rocking the boat.” She was inspired when Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, as she was a member of the “first all black swim team from Buffalo, New York.” Having endured racist taunts and fears (one maintenance crew “actually drained the pool after we left,” she says), she looked forward to a future when protests would yield change.
Along with Johnson, the short film, which premieres 8 February on HBO, includes interviews with Whoopi Goldberg, John Legend, and Hill Harper. Some of these interviews are decidedly non-news. Where Legend tries to reconcile the famously abiding contradiction between art and commerce (“When it comes time to market it, I want to make money doing what I do, but I also want to make great art: I feel like I can do both”), Harper reminds us that he went to law school with Barack Obama. (He doesn’t speak about his books, including Letters to a Young Brother and Letters to a Young Sister, as these lay out his ideas for reshaping intracommunity gender relations.) And Goldberg restates her own fairly famous affection for the original Star Trek: seeing Nichelle Nichols as Uhura, she says, “I thought, ‘Not only are we gonna be in the future, but we gonna be fly in the future.'” Now, Goldberg asserts, she’s willing to play a different sort of role. “There always has to be one person who takes the hit,” she smiles. “I’m supposed to take some of those hits, because I know that it’s better than it’s ever been before, but it can be even better. And all it takes is explanation.”
Volume Three‘s explanations are more cursory than sustained. Still, a couple of interviews make strong and important points about the ways race inflects daily life in America. Michael Lomax, president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund of the United States, notes “the kind of internal inconsistency in our community,” that is, the celebrations of achievements that must repress or ignore difficult truths or experiences that might be taken out of context. So, he admires his mother, a journalist who took risks to report on the Civil Rights Movement in the South, and his grandfather, who made a fortune as a numbers banker in Los Angeles. And at the same time, he sees how one story tends to be valued over another. If he sees himself carrying on his mother’s work, he also finds a lesson in his grandfather’s experience:
I’m a card-carrying member of the black upper class. I’m a member of the Boule, my wife is a Links, my kids are in Jack and Jill. You scratch a little bit beneath the surface, you know, and you do find an underbelly, in terms of my grandfather. This was an entrepreneur but because of the world in which he lived, the only way he felt he could articulate that was in terms of the underworld. If the playing field had been even, he may have been a captain of industry.
Lomax’s sense of his own success is framed by a vexed relationship to the legitimate world and the “underworld,” as both operate within the same values and ambitions, their differences premised on power structures, who gets to define what’s legal and not.
Lomax’s story seems just about opposite that of Lee Daniels. The Oscar-nominated director of Precious observes that “a lot of African Americans didn’t respond to Monster’s Ball and Shadowboxer,” positing that the problem was their depiction of interracial relationships. While some viewers might have other objections to these films, he goes on to make the righteous point that his work explores sex and sexuality in provocative ways. His own resistance to mainstream expectations is of a piece, he suggests, with his personal experience. He’s one of two fathers, with his white partner Billy Hopkins, to his niece and nephew. “I think my kids have a very unique take on life,” he says. When that “take” becomes less unusual, we may all be making progress.