May 8 2012

Justus, Joshua and James: 3 Black Chess Players Achieve Master Ranking at Age 12

There are some 77,000 members of the United States Chess Federation and fewer than 2 percent of them are excellent enough players to be called “masters.”

Of those masters, just 13 of them are under the age of 14.

Of those 13, three are African American boys from the New York City area — Justus Williams, Joshua Colas and James Black, Jr. — each achieved master status at age 12.

“Masters don’t happen every day, and African American masters who are 12 never happen,” said Maurice Ashley, the only black chess master to earn the top title of grandmaster. “To have three young players do what they have done is something of an amazing curiosity. You normally wouldn’t get something like that in any city of any race.”

Maurice Ashley, World’s First Black Chess Grandmaster

Ashley, now 45, became a master at age 20 and a grandmaster at 34.

The Chess Federation uses a rating system to measure ability based on the results of matches won in officially sanctioned events. A player reaching a rating of 2,200 qualifies for master.

Justus was the first of the three boys to get to 2,200, making him the youngest black player ever to obtain the master rank. Not long after Justus achieved that rare honor, Joshua replaced him in the record books by achieving master ranking while still a few months younger than Justus was. James, now 13, became a master at age 12 in July, 2011.

Although they are competitors, the boys are also friends who recognize that others see them as role models.

“I think of Justus, me and Josh as pioneers for African American kids who want to take up chess,” James said.

All three of the boys have set their sights on becoming grandmasters by the time they graduate from high school, a feat only a few dozen players in the world have achieved.

One of my all time favorite movies is “Searching for Bobby Fisher,” about a young chess wiz. This scene stands as one of my top ten favorite scenes ever. You have to see the whole movie for the “trick or treat” reference to have its full impact, but you gotta love the suspense this director was able to create in a game that could be a boring spectator sport for the uninitiated:

“You’ve lost, you just don’t know it.” Ahhh, I LOVE this movie. That scene makes my eyes water every time.

Please share this if you believe the story of these three young black chess players who are friends and rivals in a world where they are considered a “curiosity” would make an awesome movie.

By Kathleen Cross for

(Originally published 11/2012)

Feb 29 2012

Know Good White People: Wrestling the term ‘White Pride’ Out of the Hands of the Klan

Jean Rankin was a wife and mother of thirteen children living in a modest home overlooking the Ohio river in what was the “free state” of Ohio. Through her window she could see a clear and gorgeous view of Kentucky, where thousands of enslaved African Americans lived under the cruel system of American chattel slavery.

For forty years, leading up to the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Jean and her husband John opened their home to offer food, lodging and directions further north to nearly 2000 fugitive slaves seeking freedom.

As a mother, and as an American woman who descended from enslaved Africans, I am awed and humbled by this family. When I think about putting my own freedom and my own children’s lives at risk to serve others, it is a frightening, daunting idea.

While researching this subject of whtie anti-racists in American history, I am finding hundreds of stories of courageous and inspiring people like the Rankins who have been left out of mainstream hero worship. I hope you will agree that it is time to remedy that omission. These are amazing American heroes our children should know about.

Know Good White People: Wrestling the term ‘White Pride’ Out of the Hands of the Klan is an homage to anti-racist white Americans whose lives embodied the ideals of “freedom and justice for all” that our forefathers prescribed at the birth of this nation. Why have they been excluded from our national memory? What has their absence done to our collective psyche in terms of race relations?

The idea for this project came, in part, from an article I read about a young girl named Lisa McClelland who tried to start a “Caucasian Club” at her high school. Long story short—for her own safety, she eventually had to change schools.

Prior to her exile to another campus, the 15-year-old insisted her proposed club would be “a positive organization dedicated to honoring diversity” and a place to learn more about what it means to be white.

Amid the firestorm of controversy Lisa sparked, a KKK representative welcomed her to join their group, and the local NAACP spokesman slammed her idea, calling it racist in name, if not intent. He said,

“When we use the word ‘white’ or ‘Caucasian,’ it has always been associated with racial bigotry. Using that term opens up old wounds…”

What message is sent to young people with the omission of white anti-racist heroes from our national history? White Americans will not (should not?) bother themselves with issues of racial justice?

Jan 15 2012

Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls: Celebrating the 1st Graduating Class

From the moment Oprah Winfrey announced her intention to build a leadership academy for impoverished girls on the African continent, critics were vehement and vocal about why it was the wrong thing to do.

When scandal rocked the school, not once, but repeatedly, the critics’ voices were amplified in the media, and their negative opinions about Winfrey’s methods and motives seemed even more valid in the eyes of dubious observers.

Winfrey said that to her, these girls are like her daughters, daughters whose lives included devastating experiences that never deterred them from wanting to reach their full potential:  “Divorce. Violence. Molestation. The loss of one parent. The loss of another parent. Sorrow. Sadness. Grief,” Oprah recounted.

Despite the many harsh realities the girls faced, 72 of the original class of 75 persevered and graduated. All 72 are headed to universities in South Africa and the United States to study in a diversity of fields including law, engineering, medicine and accounting.

“I’m one proud mama today,” said Winfrey, calling the students “phenomenal, phenomenal, phenomenal women.”

Winfrey noted that these students were born in 1994, the same year apartheid died in South Africa. She told the graduates they were brought to life  “in a nation that said: You are free. You are free to rise. You are free to soar.”

Oprah asked staff and family members to stand for applause during the commencement ceremony. She praised the teachers, administrators, social workers, psychologists and family members who devoted themselves to educating the young women, saying the school’s success was owed to teachers who came early and stayed late, social workers committed to their roles, and parents who helped to  instill discipline despite difficult home lives.

Winfrey said she has learned over the years that it takes a dedicated team to support students, especially those who have experienced poverty and personal trauma.

When the first group of students arrived five years ago, most of the 11- and 12-year-old girls had never used a computer. Many had attended schools with dirt floors and no desks. Some were left orphaned by AIDS, cancer and crime. All of them were selected for their desire to be educated, and their passion to serve their people.

There were times Winfrey felt discouraged by serious problems that occurred at the academy, including molestation charges against a dormitory matron, and a newborn baby found dead in a student’s room. Throughout the crises, Winfrey said she “always held the vision that this day was possible.”

Now that these women are headed out into the world to realize their potential and make their impact, it is impossible to side with the naysayers who said, among other criticisms, that Oprah should have done something like this closer to home.

Regardless of where on earth these women stand, they stand as beautiful, brown, brilliant symbols of what caring motivation and quality education can and should produce.

–by Kathleen Cross for