Longreads Best of 2020: Profiles

Here’s a selection of profiles that resonated with us this year.

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Visible Men: Black Fathers Talk About Losing Sons to Police Brutality (Mosi Secret, GQ)

At GQ, Mosi Secret offers a moving portrait of Joe Louis Cole, Larry Barbine, Rev. Joey Crutcher, Selwyn Jones, Jacob Blake III, and Michael Brown Sr., who are the fathers and father figures of Michael Brown, Terence Crutcher, Daniel Prude, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, and Jacob Blake — all Black men who were killed by police brutality.

Their lives were transformed by the worst kind of news, a blow that left everything that followed so suddenly and painfully different. Not only have they suffered the abrupt and traumatic loss of their loved ones, but often just hours after being stunned by tragedy, they grieve before news cameras. They are transformed from ordinary people into symbols of this country’s injustice, symbols onto which so much meaning other than their own is projected. How easily could that parent have been me, grieving my child, the thinking goes. And yet these fathers endure such moments in uneasy juxtaposition with the mythical assumption that they don’t even exist.

These fathers and father figures, in just being present, fight against a myth of the absent Black father, one that began in 1965, when “Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then an assistant secretary of labor, delivered a report to the Johnson White House, The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, arguing that the plight of Black American communities was in decline due to a simple factor: the crumbling of the family unit and, in particular, children being raised in fatherless homes.” What Moynihan’s report failed to convey was the way in which social structures meant to assist actually penalized the nuclear Black family.

Just weeks after the study’s release, riots broke out across the Watts neighborhood in Los Angeles and critics latched onto the report to blame the ensuing violence on what Moynihan called “the deterioration of the Negro family.” The number of fatherless families, Black and otherwise, would rapidly grow in the following decades—a trend partly driven by the nation’s primary welfare program, in which for a period some states considered families ineligible for benefits if an adult male was a member of the household. The legacy of that policy and Moynihan’s report continues, and the notion of troubled, fatherless Black men has resurfaced after each national reckoning with racial injustice, including in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing.

N.K. Jemisin’s Dream Worlds (Raffi Khatchadourian, The New Yorker)

“John Scalzi, the former president of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, heralded Jemisin as ‘arguably the most important speculative writer of her generation.’” (Edit, mine.) Jemisin’s fiction is imaginative, original, and immersive and I’ll just say it: I’m an unabashed fangirl.

In this portrait by Raffi Khatchadourian at The New Yorker, we learn about the personal dreamscapes that inspire Jemisin’s fiction and the critical influence that Noah, her artist father, had on her development as a writer. We get a glimpse into the systemic racism Jemisin has experienced in her career and into some fantastic writing that offers hope amid the chaos of a failed civilization.

Accepting her third Hugo, Jemisin stood at the lectern, with the rocket-shaped award beside her, and declared, “This is the year in which I get to smile at all of those naysayers, every single mediocre, insecure wannabe who fixes their mouth to suggest that I do not belong on this stage, that people like me could not possibly have earned such an honor, and that when they win it’s ‘meritocracy,’ but when we win it’s ‘identity politics.’ ” Holding up the award, she added, “I get to smile at those people, and lift a massive, shining rocket-shaped finger in their direction.”

“How Long ’til Black Future Month?” includes one of her earliest published stories, “Cloud Dragon Skies” (2005), in which an ecological disaster has caused most of humanity to abandon Earth for a ring-shaped space colony, built from crushed asteroids, beyond Mars. “Old foolishness lay at the root of it,” notes the narrator, a young woman named Nahautu, one of the few who stay. The planet has rebounded, except for the atmosphere. The toxic chemicals it has absorbed combine to form a new kind of life:

One morning we awoke and the sky was a pale, blushing rose. We began to see intention in the slow, ceaseless movements of the clouds. Instead of floating, they swam spirals in the sky. They gathered in knots, trailing wisps like feet and tails. We felt them watching us.

Ozark Life (Terra Fondriest, The Bitter Southerner)

Terra Fondriest’s ode to Ozark life in text and visuals at The Bitter Southerner is firmly set in the before times, when you could safely hold a wedding without masks, and when you could mix with more than members of your household without fear. What I loved most about his piece is how it exalts in simple joys — the best kind. This piece cleanses your mental palate not only with words and images, but with its grace.

Motor down just one dirt road, and you’ll begin to collect moments that are unique to this part of the South we call the Ozark Hills. Up and down hills and across creeks, maybe stopping in the middle to listen to the water flow and then heading back up, you’ll pass vistas of seemingly endless peaks dotted with cattle pastures. You’ll see wild turkeys dash across the road in front of you on their way to the acorns and hickory nuts in the forest on the other side. If your windows are open, you might hear waterfalls cascading down the drainage ways after a hard rain, or the interior might fill with dust and the smell of oak leaves burning during a dry spell. You might meet a truck coming at you on the narrow road and see how it pulls off near the edge of the woods to let you pass.

And if it so happens you decide to put roots down and call these hills home, you might start to develop relationships with certain parts of the creek or different bends in the road. You might start to become familiar with the people nestled in the hills who have been here for generations and those who arrived recently, just like you. You will slowly become part of the cadence of everyday Ozark life.

While Fondriest is new to the area, she understands that the only way to find her place is to get to know her neighbors and to earn their trust.

I am still the same introverted girl who grew up in the suburbs. Getting to know new people makes me more nervous photographing for this project. It’s a challenge that is daunting on most days, but the camaraderie built by pushing through that with my subjects yields the intimacy I strive for in my storytelling. Some of the folks I photograph are friends and neighbors, but others are people I meet through circumstance, whose everyday story I find interesting and a good piece for my Ozark Life story quilt. But I approach them. I might talk to them right away about my project, or I might let it simmer a bit and get to know them over days, months, even years before I bring up my project and my request to photograph them. Building a relationship is important, because it makes the pictures secondary.

Death and the All-American Boy (Kitty Kelley, The Washingtonian)

In 1974, Joe Biden had just lost his first wife Neilia and his daughter in a car crash and as the youngest person in the Senate at age 31, it is the sum of these things that make him “good copy.”

Joseph Robinette Biden, the 31-year-old Democrat from Delaware, is the youngest man in the Senate, which makes him a celebrity of sorts. But there’s something else that makes him good copy: Shortly after his election in November 1972 his wife Neilia and infant daughter were killed in a car accident. Suddenly this handsome, young man struck down in his moment of glory was prey to scores of hungry reporters clamoring to write soul-searching stories.

What intrigued me about this piece at The Washingtonian is the pure swagger Biden displays for reporter Kitty Kelly. Oh 1974, you were a different time, indeed.

In his office in the New Senate Office Building surrounded by more than 35 pictures of his late wife, Biden launched into a three-hour reminiscence. It wasn’t maudlin—he seemed to enjoy remembering aloud. He was the handsome football hero. She was the beautiful homecoming queen. Their marriage was perfect. Their children were beautiful. And they almost lived happily ever after. “Neilia was my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover. The longer we lived together the more we enjoyed everything from sex to sports. Most guys don’t really know what I lost because they never knew what I had. Our marriage was sensational. It was exceptional, and now that I look around at my friends and my colleagues, I know more than ever how phenomenal it really was. When you lose something like that, you lose a part of yourself that you never get back again.

“My wife was the brains behind my campaign. I would never have made it here without her. It’s hard to imagine ever going through another campaign without her. She was the most intelligent human being I have ever known. She was absolutely brilliant. I’m smart but Neilia was ten times smarter. And she had the best political sense of anybody in the world. She always knew the right thing to do.

“Let me show you my favorite picture of her,” he says, holding up a snapshot of Neilia in a bikini. “She had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?

“My beautiful millionaire wife was a conservative Republican before she met me. But she changed her registration. At first she didn’t want me to run for the Senate—we had such a beautiful thing going, and we knew all those stories about what politics can do to a marriage. She didn’t want that to happen. At first she stayed at home with the kids while I campaigned but that didn’t work out because I’d come back too tired to talk to her. I might satisfy her in bed but I didn’t have much time for anything else. That’s when she started campaigning with me and that’s when I started winning. You know, the people of Delaware really elected her,” he says, “but they got me.”

Some detractors accuse him of shrouding himself in widower’s weeds, of dredging up his late wife in every speech. But Biden prides himself on being candid and honest—”That’s the only way I could be with the wife I had.” He understands the accusations: “I’m not the kind of guy everyone likes. My personality either grabs you or it doesn’t. My sister says I almost lost the campaign because ofmy personality, and my brother-in-law says you either love me or you hate me. I’m not an in-between type.

Feeling Bullish: On My Great-Uncle, Gay Matador and Friend of Hemingway (Rebekah Frumkin, Granta)

Speaking of intriguing men in very different times, at Granta we have Rebekah Frumkin’s portrait of her uncle Sidney Franklin. Discontent with the prospect of a potentially hum-drum existence as a teacher or an accountant, Franklin, armed only with persistence, self-confidence, and a desire for fame, ditched his Brooklyn-based identity in 1922 to fashion himself into a matador on a dare. What’s more, he became very good at it.

On 26 April 1976, after suffering a stroke that robbed him of the ability to walk and speak, the matador Sidney Franklin died in a nursing home in Manhattan, roughly thirteen miles from his native Brooklyn. Fifteen years earlier, on 2 July 1961, Ernest Hemingway donned his ‘emperor’s robe’ and shot himself in the head with a double-barreled shotgun. As young men, the two had split bottles of brandy in Spain, had traveled through the countryside together (a remarked-upon odd couple, one clean and effete and the other greasy and unshaven), had watched bombs explode in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War. The New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross had said theirs was a friendship between a great man and a lesser one. I am the grand-niece of the lesser one.

After six years of touring successfully in Mexico, Sidney fought his way to the central stage of the bullfighting world: the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza in Seville. On 9 June 1929, Sidney would acquit himself expertly in the ring, earning praise from Spanish aficionados and major newspapers. Again, adoring fans would flood from their stadium seats to lift Sidney up on their shoulders. Again, they would tear his traje apart, but these would be Spanish hands tearing, the hands of people who considered their arenas too good for Mexican toreros. Sidney would be carried back to his pension and strangers would crowd him – they would even join him in the shower. ‘I enjoyed and savored what I had done with an intensity almost sexually sensual,’ Sidney wrote, and later: ‘All the sexes seem to throw themselves at you.’ The Brooklyn Eagle, which had been covering Sidney’s story in lavish terms since his debut in Mexico, would publish headlines such as ‘Brooklyn Bullfighter Wins Great Ovation in Brilliant Spanish Debut’ and ‘Ten Thousand in Seville Arena Cheer Him as He Dispatches Bovine Foe with Single Stroke.’

Sidney was more than a novelty, a weird American who’d decided to try his hand at a foreign sport: he was a bullfighter in his own right, el único matador, and to his extreme satisfaction more than a little Spanish. He fashioned himself as a sort of cultural ambassador to Spain, singularly capable of introducing bullfighting to his American countrymen. ‘I shall not return to my hometown, Brooklyn, until I have gained fame throughout Spain,’ he told the Eagle. ‘I am sure that as soon as Americans are able to understand the beauty of this art, they will take to it, the same as they have taken to other sports.’ He joined an elite group of Spanish bullfighters whose company he continued to keep for decades.

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Read all the categories in our Best of 2020 year-end collection.