Skip to Content

raceAhead: Chasing John Coltrane, Twitter Verifies a White Supremacist, A More Inclusive Yelp

I was introduced to Trane later in life. Eight years ago in fact.

He was the new, part-time doorman in our low-key uptown apartment building. He was barely nineteen. Outfitted in a spare uniform, some two sizes too big and cinched at his waist, he looked a good deal younger, like a boy cosplaying a man who signed for packages and, if he remembered, held the door.

“I’m Trane,” he said by way of introduction. “But most people think it’s Train.”

“Trane, Like Coltrane? I asked. He burst into a smile and then we were friends.

Trane’s story was like so many young, black men with extremely limited means but high hopes. He was the next generation after the Great Migration, and he liked to tell stories about the times when things got sideways, he’d get sent down to stay with his Southern cousins, where they’d fish for crappies using Skittles as bait. The village that was raising him also included a blur of pastors, some teachers, social workers, street corner philosophers, government uplift programs and now, a bunch of random renters on Manhattan’s Upper West.

But tough as things may have been at times, he had a mother who so believed in the transcendent power of John Coltrane, that she named not one but two of her sons after him. Cole, Trane’s minutes-older brother, was his identical twin. I was transfixed by the notion. What was this black boy magic?

Meeting Trane triggered in me an eight-year quest to understand all things Coltrane, a satisfying if incomplete journey into the life of a man who was rarely interviewed or filmed, but who had come to represent a type of black intellectual and artistic excellence that inspires people to this day.

I listened to his music obsessively. I collected first-hand accounts. I watched every documentary I could find. I made a spiritual pilgrimage to his home in Dix Hills, Long Island. I even developed a nerd-level interest in the mouthpieces he used and tinkered with to change his sound.

So, naturally, I was drawn to Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, which premiered this week on PBS. It’s definitely worth your time.

While true jazz insiders will undoubtedly find flaws somewhere in the thesis, it gave me what I was looking for. The filmmakers rely largely on Coltrane’s own words, read by Denzel Washington, to help explain his development as an artist, and tap people who knew him and loved him — like jazz great Sonny Rollins, Cornell West, and Coltrane’s own children — to help put the artist’s work into a broader context. Their love for him is a gift.

Coltrane himself was a miracle. He was a sensitive child of the Jim Crow South, who lost most of his immediate family before he was twelve. He was a late bloomer, musically, and he white-knuckled his way out of a crippling addiction into a spiritual awakening that transformed the way he played. He was nurtured by and then outgrew Miles Davis, and through ascetic dedication and intellectual honesty, developed into an artist who made music the world had never heard before. He died of liver cancer at the peak of his career, and yet his records can still makes you feel … something real.

But the true thrill of the film is the previously unreleased photos and video, showing Trane as a shy and gentle man, living his life and loving his family and friends. While he may be best known for his seminal work, A Love Supreme – a musical declaration that his sound was now a fully spiritual expression, completely intertwined with God – the revelation of Chasing Trane is of a man capable of deep love of a personal variety, fully present, untempted by fame or other childish things. Something anyone could be or want.

It was then that I finally saw the complete picture of the Coltrane magic that compelled a troubled new mother to lay his name upon her twin sons.

My first Trane has since moved on, and his Facebook has gone quiet, which makes me worry from time to time. He is on a short list of souls I think specifically about when I hear of a police shooting or other incident involving a young black man. And I often wonder what the original Trane would think of the world as it feels lately, supremely unloving in ways both familiar and strange.

I think John Coltrane would say to pray, do your serious work, and stay positive. “You know, I know that there are forces out here that bring suffering to others and misery to the world,” he once said. “But I want to be the opposite force. I want to be the force which is truly for good.”

I want to believe that his name will be enough to protect sweet Trane and his brother, I really do. But being a small part of a greater opposite force seems like the only hope. It may not always feel like magic, but it keeps me doing the work.

On Point

Twitter has verified Jason Kessler, the white supremacist who organized the Charlottesville rallyKessler’s new blue checkmark is odd timing for Twitter, who a short time ago had promised to redouble their efforts to curb violent speech and eliminate hate groups. Kessler had deleted his account last August, after a backlash for a series of tweets in which he said that Heather Heyer, who was killed at Kessler’s “Unite the Right, rally” was “a fat, disgusting Communist,” and called her death “payback time.”The Daily Beast

Meet Ashley Bennett, a brand new legislator who is not here for your misogynist humor
Bennett was just living her life when a Facebook meme mocking the Women’s March was posted by John Carman, a local legislator in Atlantic County, New Jersey. She was so insulted, she decided to run for his seat. And she won! The psychiatric emergency screener had never run for office before, but she sounds prepared. “I am beyond speechless and incredibly grateful to serve my community. I never imaged I would run for office.” The knee-slapper that got him ousted? “Will the woman’s protest be over in time for them to cook dinner?” People were seriously pissed.

A new platform aims to train underrepresented company founders who are building start ups
It’s not an incubator or a boot camp. Instead, Founder Gym, co-founded by Mandela Schumacher-Hodge and Gabriela Zamudio, plans to offer four-week training programs that will help emerging entrepreneurs get smart about fundraising, pitching, user growth and problem validation. Bold faced names will offer classes, and while the duo doesn’t take an equity position, there is a $395 participation fee. Click through for details. And take note: Applications for the first cohort just opened and will run through November 30. The first four-week program begins January 8, 2018.

Inside Yelp’s methodical quest for diversity
An all-star team wrote this case study detailing Yelp’s diversity efforts to date, including Rachel Williams, Head of Corporate Recruiting, Diversity & Inclusion at Yelp and Michael Luca, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. They’ve had some real success, but one of the most refreshing aspects of their analysis is that they do more than just benchmark. They also share their thinking behind the strategies they’ve tried and are transparent about what didn’t work. Turns out blinding résumés and having candidates use a voice disguiser in first-round phone interviews was a complete dud. “This cuts to the heart of the problem in 2017, which is that increasing diversity at tech companies isn’t about finding a silver bullet,” they say. Have a process, be transparent about what’s happening, and evaluate the policies you implement. Boom there it is.

The Woke Leader

Jay-Z wrote and narrated a film decrying America’s ‘War on Drugs’
Last year, Beyonce’s husband stepped from the shadows to lend his words and voice to a short art video that describes the history of draconian drug laws in the U.S. that exploded the prison populations and disproportionately targeted black and brown people – even though white people sold and used more crack cocaine than anyone else. (It’s a caste system, whispers Isabel Wilkerson.) Oh, and he mentions the legal marijuana industry, which leaves out black and brown entrepreneurs. The video features the artwork of Molly Crabapple, and remains an essential primer on one of the most divisive issues facing black communities today.
New York Times

Out at work in 2017
It’s not so easy being queer for lots of people who work, explains Fast Company’s Rich Bellis. For starters, “[t]he Justice Department rolled back protections for LGBTQ workers in July, and it remains legal to fire someone for being gay or transgender in 28 states,” he explains. In a poignant essay, Bellis introduces the “Out At Work” package, which includes an ambitious survey of the working lives of LGBTQ people, including more than 3,000 responses from all 50 states and a dozen countries. The stories are rich and varied, some “coming out” stories resulting in more open workplaces (and better benefits) while others are utterly heartbreaking. There are some bold-faced names in the mix as well. This future award-winning package deserves your full attention. A full tip of the hat to Bellis and the team.
Fast Company

Johnstown, Pennsylvania still loves Trump
Though they are clear, despite his promises, that no help is coming to depressed former steel town. While this is part of the “first year of Trump” wave of stories which will revisit the rust belt fans of 2016, this story is notable for a couple of important reasons. One of them is the true cognitive disconnect between what people believe the president is doing and what he is actually doing. (And I only mean golfing a lot.) And the next is the true level of abandonment and despair that certain Americans are experiencing, that no next wave is poised to address. And finally, writer Michael Kruse finally found someone willing to tell the truth about what they really feel about all those knee-taking millionaire football players. Even though you know it’s coming, it takes your breath away.


There is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. When you experience mercy, you learn things that are hard to learn otherwise. You see things you can’t otherwise see; you hear things you can’t otherwise hear. You begin to recognize the humanity that resides in each of us.
—Bryan Stevenson