Da'Shawn Mosley is an editor and journalist in the Washington, D.C., metro area whose beats include the arts, LGBTQIA issues, race, and U.S. politics. He is also a fiction writer, poet, and essayist. Da'Shawn earned a B.A. in English Language and Literature from the University of Chicago, studied creative writing at the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts and Humanities, and was featured in the PBS documentary Becoming an Artist. His fiction earned him the 2019 A Suite of One's Own: A Writer's Residency, awarded by Kiese Laymon, and he has been published in America magazine and The Adroit Journal.
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Perfection Is the Lord's
ONE OF MY favorite quotes is from the novelist Taiye Selasi—or, more specifically, Selasi’s editor. Selasi was nervous before the release of her debut novel, Ghana Must Go. How would it be received? What if it wasn’t perfect? She called her editor, and the advice was simple: “Perfection is the Lord’s.”
This came to mind as I watched the final season of Pose, a scripted FX drama focused on the New York City ballroom culture, in which groups of LGBTQ+ people influenced by the fashion industry compete in dance, runway, and posing competitions. Pose isn’t just about trans and queer people as they try to survive the AIDS epidemic; it stars trans actors. It’s moving not just because of its subject matter but also because it’s unafraid to make what many scholars consider a grave mistake in art: crossing the line into sentimentality.
Let dialogue be cheesy. Let characters’ instincts to battle it out on the dance floor after every tragedy be as ridiculous as most musical numbers in Glee. Let feelings be unrefined. These seem to be Pose’s creeds, and I often eyerolled at the show’s adherence to them. And yet I kept watching. It was—there’s no other word for it—love.
Kendrick Lamar Is Forcing Us to Reckon With His Brokenness
All the glory Kendrick Lamar has received for his three Grammy Album of the Year nominated works of Christ-influenced, socially conscious rap masks a difficult truth: To be a fan of his music, you have to disregard its desecration of women.
Discomfort May Be the Point
WHEN I THINK about the 2015 HBO miniseries Show Me a Hero, the person who first comes to mind is Nick Wasicsko. This is understandable: According to its HBO blurb, the politician is the show’s main protagonist. But this scripted drama is about the real-life 1980s and ’90s struggle for public housing in Yonkers, N.Y., when low-income people of color worked for integration and the city government resisted—even as daily contempt-of-court fines threatened to bankrupt it. So, it feels weird to focus on the white Mayor Wasicsko, although he (eventually) fights for the public housing too.
This discomfort may be the point. “The thing I don’t buy anymore,” said the show’s co-writer, David Simon (The Wire, Treme), “is if we elect the right guy, the great men of history, that’ll save us. ... Our problems are systemic, and we’re going to have to solve them as people.”
Kanye West Is Not Done Changing the World, for Better or Worse
Looking at Kanye West can be both difficult and easy. Easy because of his genius: how he put Chicago on the map as a hub for brilliant rap music, widened the lane for non-gangster rappers, and somehow made tunes seriously considering Jesus so sonically innovative and catchy that some become radio staples, paving the path for Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper. Difficult because of his public antics: the outbursts, the flamboyance, the drama. Recently Kanye’s displays have even become dangerous, harassing his wife Kim Kardashian, who has filed for divorce, and threatening her rumored boyfriend Pete Davidson.
‘Tehran’ Is a Timely Look at Life Beyond the U.S
THE POWER OF the TV drama Tehran, about an Israeli spy who was born in Iran to a Jewish family and returns to her birthplace to help destroy a nuclear reactor, lies partly in how it parallels reality. On the other side of the screen, President Joe Biden continues to face the fallout of President Donald Trump’s decisions to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, while tensions between Iran and Israel simmer.
But relevance alone doesn’t win an International Emmy Award for Best Drama. With her lifelong ties to both Israel and Iran, Tehran’s hacker-agent Tamar Rabinyan is a unique protagonist, and Tehran perfectly executes the thrills and twists that draw people to the spy genre. The show also is violent—guns, blood, an attempted rape that ends with the killing of the attacker, and a shot of a man hanged from a crane, presumably executed by the government. The more I watched, the more I felt a pang in my chest, wondering whether Rabinyan would survive.
Tehran is not all stress, though—at least not for the viewer. Rabinyan’s family members become entangled with the show’s plot in a pleasurably Shakespearean fashion, mirroring each other and possessing information their kin may not know but the viewer does. A romance grows between Rabinyan and an Iranian hacker named Milad. When the show pauses the action to linger on characters and personal relationships, we can reflect on the humanity of Muslim and Jewish lives. Even clichéd techniques provide this opportunity, such as a scene in slo-mo—which I would have foregone for regular-speed footage—of Iranian university students protesting restrictions imposed by their government as other students counterprotest in support of the government’s conservative stance.
Seeing Ourselves On Screen
SOME TV SHOWS are as great as our greatest literature. Programs such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad are Dickensian in their sprawl and Shakespearean in their tragic characters’ deceptions. But one show in this current Golden Age of television is the most oft-overlooked of its peers, one whose greater feat—or unfairness to screenwriters—is that it’s not scripted. I’m talking about A&E’s reality show Hoarders.
I’m not kidding. What often draws people to watch those suffering from hoarding disorder and the psychologists, professional organizers, and loved ones trying to help them overcome mental illness is the typical reality TV magnet: Seeing the life of someone worse off than you. But there’s more to Hoarders than that. A good episode is nothing less than a short story similar to those by Alice Munro, vivid in its deep analysis of real life, family dynamics, and psyches in danger and repair. Almost every night for the past month, watching has been like studying fiction writing in some of the best (and cheapest) creative writing courses I’ve ever taken.
A Buddy Comedy With Heart
I WOULDN'T WISH on anyone the narrative dilemma facing the writers of United States of Al. The CBS show is a buddy comedy about a young Afghan man who finally gets a visa to come to the U.S., thanks to a Marine, Riley, for whom he was an interpreter during the Afghanistan War, whose life he saved, and with whom he’s living in the States. But United States of Al’s second season, with an Oct. 7 premiere, may need to encompass even more grief than its predecessor. The U.S. has withdrawn from Afghanistan, and the Taliban has taken over. We’ve seen the video of Afghan people trying to hold on to a U.S. military plane as it takes off, the clip ending right before some of them fall. Human remains were later found in the plane’s wheel well. What will happen when United States of Al’s protagonist sees that video?
‘Freedom’ Is Everywhere, But What Does It Mean?
Aretha Franklin, Simone Biles, and Britney Spears deserve some respect.
Aretha Franklin Biopic ‘Respect’ Highlights Dangers of Patriarchy
Respect is a must-see work, moving in its revelation of a superstar whose glow many of us have seen, the shadows surrounding them more hidden from view. Ms. Franklin was not just an incredible singer but also a civil rights activist like her father.
City of Brotherly Justice?
PENNSYLVANIA CAPTURED THE attention of many of us this year via the superb crime drama Mare of Easttown on HBO, but there’s another incredible television show set in the state that we should be watching. I’m talking about Philly D.A., on PBS. An eight-episode documentary series focused on activist-attorney Larry Krasner’s unusual election to the role of Philadelphia’s district attorney and his desire to drastically reform the office, Philly D.A. is gripping and revelatory in how it explores the intricacies of his efforts. In the social justice sphere, we have big ideas of how government systems and traditions can be altered and abandoned, but most of us never get the chance to implement them. Philly D.A. depicts a staff doing just that and shows how difficult it is.
We see assistant DAs and staff members who have worked in the office for years, for several administrations, and have households and families—we see them be fired because they’re believed to be too entrenched in how things were done in the past. We see surviving loved ones of murdered citizens wonder why, after many years of the DA’s office recommending the death penalty, Krasner does not see it as a good solution. We see judges and other officials express their fear that, in the pursuit of innovation, all aspects of a functioning system are being tampered with, negatively affecting the city’s safety.
Mary Lou Williams' Jazz Is for the Masses
FROM THE 1920s until her death in 1981, Black jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams injected energy and innovation into the genre and, via three jazz Masses composed after her conversion to Catholicism in the 1950s, into the church. Still, her music is sometimes overlooked, while the popularity of male jazz musicians’ work—including her mentees Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker—persists.
In this century, Deanna Witkowski is amplifying Williams’ works of music and faith. Witkowski is a jazz pianist herself, inspired by Williams, and a doctoral student in the jazz studies program at the University of Pittsburgh. She is restoring and recording general and liturgical compositions by Williams, some of which haven’t been recorded since 1944. And she has written a biography of the pioneer, Mary Lou Williams: Music for the Soul (Liturgical Press). Witkowski spoke with Sojourners associate editor Da’Shawn Mosley about the book and its namesake.
Da’Shawn Mosley: How did you become interested enough in Mary Lou Williams to write a biography of her?
Deanna Witkowski: In 2000, Dr. Billy Taylor, a jazz musician himself and the judge from a jazz piano competition I had played the year before, contacted me and said, “Come bring your quintet to play at the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Festival at the Kennedy Center in the spring.” And so of course I said, “Yes, I would love to do this.” And then thought, “I really don’t know Mary Lou Williams’ music.” That’s a very common thing, even among jazz musicians or aficionados. She has this reputation [as] this great pianist and composer who wrote big-band music for Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman and mentored all these famous jazz musicians—so we know Thelonious Monk. But her compositions aren’t very well known.
U.S. Politics' Narrow Gate
EXCEPT FOR ABRAHAM LINCOLN and Thomas Jefferson, every president of the United States was or is a professing Christian.
Only in the case of John F. Kennedy, it seems, has a president’s Christian faith counted against him in the opinion of a significant number of citizens, and in Kennedy’s case it was because he was Catholic rather than Protestant. The Christian belief of public officials in any branch of national, state, or local government hardly ever raises concern among the U.S. public. But the opposite is true when it comes to Muslim officials.
Many conservative Americans say they fear that the U.S. will become a nation influenced by Islamic tenets instead of Christian ones. Commentators on Fox News often express alarm about sharia (Islamic law). Jeanine Pirro, host of the network’s Justice with Jeanine Pirro, accused Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Muslim woman of Somali descent, of supporting Islamic rule in the United States. Omar and Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan are the only two Muslim women ever elected to Congress, and two of the three Muslims ever to serve in the U.S. legislature; Twitter users criticized Omar for wearing a hijab and Tlaib for wearing, at her congressional swearing-in, a traditional Palestinian dress called a thobe, made by her mother. Another Fox News host, Pete Hegseth, said that, based on how Tlaib “talked about President Trump having a hate agenda, I could, therefore, look at her and say that she has a Hamas agenda.” The Associated Press had to debunk the claim that Tlaib’s thobe was a “symbol of Hamas terrorists,” a sign that many Americans may have believed it to be true.
The alienation and hate go even further. A Florida Republican politician said in a fundraising email that falsely claimed that Omar worked for the nation of Qatar, “We should hang these traitors where they stand.” Another man called Omar’s office and said he would “put a bullet in her skull.” Following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, when lawmakers were still in the building trying to certify President Joe Biden’s election, Tlaib discussed on the House floor her constant fear due to the death threats she regularly receives.
“I worry,” she said, “every day.”
The Book of Abby
THE PROPHET JOB had a hard life, but I think even he, if listening to Abby’s story, would say, “Damn.”
He’s not listening to her troubles, though: Abby’s therapist is. No, wait, she’s not listening either, for a reason that will spur Abby’s friends to joke about just how sad Abby’s life really is.
I’m describing Work in Progress, a scripted comedy produced by Showtime and co-written by Tim Mason, Lilly Wachowski (The Matrix, Sense 8), and Abby McEnany, who stars as a fictionalized version of herself.
“Abby is a mid-forties self-identified queer dyke whose life is a quiet and ongoing crisis,” Showtime’s website describes, not revealing that Abby lives with OCD, washing her hands repeatedly and recording her life meticulously in notebooks, in case she forgets anything she’s ever done. It doesn’t reveal that Abby, throughout much of her life, has been called Pat—a reference to the Saturday Night Live character from the early ’90s—and is often mistaken for a man, asked to leave public bathrooms, and struggles with her weight. It certainly doesn’t reveal what we learn in the first few minutes of Work in Progress: In a couple of weeks, if Abby’s life doesn’t get better, she plans to take her own life.
'Tough As Nails' Plays to Kinder Rules
IN MIDDLE SCHOOL I emailed CBS and asked them to make a teen version of their reality show Big Brother, in the hope that they would cast me and I could schmooze and deceive my peers to win the contest’s $500,000 prize. Schmooze and deceive weren’t my bright ideas: They formed a strategy I had seen succeed on previous seasons of Big Brother and Survivor, as clueless heroes were undone by ruthless, money-hungry, victorious villains. Even CBS’ clean-fun competition The Amazing Race had enabled contestants to backstab another team for $1 million.
So it’s unexpected that the network’s newer prime-time contest Tough as Nails plays to kinder rules—and that it has become part of my mostly drama-filled viewing habits. Twelve Americans with some of the most strenuous jobs that exist (welder, farmer, firefighter, ironworker, and more) vie in team and individual challenges to see who’s the hardest and smartest worker. As an artsy guy whose most physically demanding professional activity is typing, I would not have pictured myself in the Tough as Nails fan base. And yet, here I am.
A Latinx Family's Hilarious, Relatable Journey To The American Dream
A GENUINE HEART can overcome many a fault in the television landscape. I don’t just mean from a plot perspective, in which a character’s good nature helps them exit a situation their good nature got them into in the first place. But also from the perspective of capturing viewers’ attention—protagonists whose warmth we feel through the screen in a way that makes us forget a show’s turnoffs: occasional weak jokes, predictable storytelling, trite dialogue—all of which the Netflix show Gentefied contains.
And yet Gentefied, a half-hour comedy with a title that plays on the words gente (Spanish for “people”) and gentrified, has quickly become a favorite. The Mexican American Morales family at its center are hilarious and relatable. Casimiro (or “Pop,” as his grandkids call him), owner of a taco restaurant in LA’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, struggles to keep his establishment open as he falls further behind on its rent and gentrification makes the neighborhood less and less familiar. Meanwhile, Casimiro’s granddaughter Ana seeks to become a successful artist; grandson Chris, a trained-in-Paris chef; and other-grandson Erik, a dependable dad. Haunting their family home are Chris’ financially stable yet estranged dad and memories of Pop’s late wife. In these tough situations full of grief (Donald Trump’s xenophobic presidency does not help), Gentefied’s creators Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus highlight the humor and love of the Morales family journey.
Ruby Sales: “So What Is It They're Asking You To Do?”
IF ASKED “What era would you time travel to if you could?” many young Black and brown and Indigenous people would answer in a flash, “None of them.” Why? We’re too aware of the past and what it means for us today—we tweet about the results of American slavery and can break news of the latest injustice to emerge from centuries-long hatred of nonwhite skin faster than MSNBC. We feel the negative effects of history enough each day to not want to go back there.
But maybe we should. If all we see of ourselves on TV and social media is us sick, oppressed, or dead, what other understanding of ourselves do we miss? How can we remember that we are greater than the damage done—that our history holds more than that and so might our present?
Ruby Sales, founder and director of the SpiritHouse Project, helps young people invested in faith and social justice see themselves through the lens of their divine wealth and boundless potential rather than through eyes dimmed by media and versions of history shaped by white supremacy. Sales, who by age 17 was a Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee member registering people to vote in her home state of Alabama, has a Master of Divinity degree from the Episcopal Divinity School and is a preacher, speaker, and intergenerational mentor on racial, economic, and social justice. I spoke with her in December by phone. —Da’Shawn Mosley
Da’Shawn Mosley: I watched a YouTube video of you speaking in 2015 at St. Albans Episcopal Church in D.C. and was struck by what you said about today’s youth: that the most recent generations have incredible insight but haven’t lived enough to have hindsight.
Ruby Sales: Now that I’m working with young folks in my fellowship program and have had some time to weigh how things have changed from the ’90s to the 2000s, I think young people lack insight also. When you have been raised in a technological age, when history is no longer lived experience but is created on social media and reproduced through technology, I think that long-term memory is affected, as well as the ability to empathize and connect with human suffering. There is a difference between being able to theorize about human suffering and being able to feel it. All of these are challenges faced by generations raised in a technocracy—the decimation of history, of who we are as a people.
How to Thrive in a Decade of Accelerating Change
Tom Sine has served as a futures innovation consultant for various denominations and organizations and Dwight J. Friesen is associate professor of practical theology at the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology. They spoke with Sojourners associate editor Da’Shawn Mosley about their book 2020s Foresight.
Sojourners: What motivated you to write this book?
Tom Sine: Essentially, a desire to write a more compelling book on the changes we’re facing in this pandemic and recession. Churches rarely do forecasting. As a consequence, they’re not ready for the next crunch. They care about their people, but they’re not thinking, “What’s going to happen to them as the recession gets worse?”
Dwight J. Friesen: Our book intends to say, “Listen, we don’t have to be passive bystanders to whatever the new normal’s going to be.” We can be proactive.
In ‘Love Child's Hotbed,’ We Are the Organic Matter
FOR BLACK people in the U.S.—a collective from which lives are still stolen on a daily basis, as though the slave-boat travels of 1619 never ended but merely set course in new directions to the same destination—reclamation is essential. Perhaps our history motivated the poet Nikky Finney’s father to repurpose a phrase that long had a negative connotation into a moniker to give his daughter positive focus.
“My mother steeped us in the stories of Black history and my father named me ‘Love Child’ in order not to give anyone else the opportunity to distract me from what I had come to earth to be,” writes Finney, winner of the 2011 National Book Award for Poetry, in her newest collection, Love Child’s Hotbed of Occasional Poetry. “So be she.”
And so she is. About a month into quarantine 2020, Finney released perhaps the most history-and-affection-freighted book to be published this harrowing year. Love Child’s Hotbed cannot be read on a Kindle. Less a typical, slender publication of modern verse, and more a hefty coffee-table book of startling import, it brings to mind The Black Book, that historical anthology co-edited in 1974 by Toni Morrison, the eventual Nobel laureate in literature who was an editor at the publishing company Random House. A book that strove to contain the vast lives of Black people in the U.S.—their horrific experiences and their magnanimous achievements—The Black Book was a gift to the nation’s children and grandchildren of slaves (and even inspired one of the greatest novels of all time, Morrison’s Beloved). Likewise, in a time of immense death and thus plundering of families, Finney’s latest book is a blessing for a continuously undone but never destroyed people, reaching into the past to grasp hope and self-worth to sustain their future.
‘Good Lord Bird’ a Few Feathers Short
I don’t begrudge Ethan Hawke for wanting to play John Brown and producing this project. John Brown’s life was vast and exciting; his willingness to take up arms to defeat injustice mirrors conversations we still have in the church today about nonviolence.
HBO's Revolutionary Black Artists Shine
EVERYTHING THAT THE devil stole, HBO’s giving back to me. That’s a sacrilegious statement, but sometimes that’s how I feel when I’m on my couch watching yet another show with a largely Black cast (and sometimes even crew) miraculously greenlit in a sea of Hollywood whiteness by the network titan that years ago gave us The Wire and made many of us notice the likes of Idris Elba.
For what seemed like eons to Black folks eager for visual confirmation that their lives mattered, Black characters on TV were mostly relegated to sidekick or background roles—and Black writers, directors, and showrunners were rare or entirely absent. But from Insecure to A Black Lady Sketch Show, Watchmen to I May Destroy You, HBO is perhaps the strongest ally for revolutionary Black artists and creators of color on and behind TV.