Like many celebrations, movements, tributes, traditions, holidays, and hinge efforts, Black History Month had a small beginning. Originally started in 1976 as a week in February, the effort, now 40+ years old, has evolved into Black History Month and is continuing to expand horizons with richer, deeper and broader recognition of the contributions and achievements of African-Americans throughout American history.
On September 14, 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington D.C. This is just one of the latest signals that the country is coming see the need for greater context and review of the relatively recent history of both the country as a whole, and the 14% of its citizens deemed African American by the U.S. Census. And even though museums are a good start, they don’t easily bring history alive to most students and citizens. That’s where Hollywood comes in.
As Hamilton on Broadway has brought new life and new conversations to discussions about the founding fathers, a recent juxtaposition of various TV, movie and literary works have brought new voices and new depths to conversations about Black history. These include:
- Between the World and Me, a 2015 open letter in short book form by Ta-Nehisi Coates to his 15-year old son on what it means to be a Black man in America. Throughout the book, Coates explores the special fear Black families have for their sons well before the days of Trayvon Martin. In one telling page he writes:
“Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.”
- Fences, the 2016 -17 movie directed by Denzel Washington based on the Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. This is not a feel-good movie, but well worth your time if you take extra time to discuss it and look at it in the context of Coates book above, or The Great Santini, the 1979 movie based on the Pat Conroy book. In Fences, Washington plays a harsh father in 1950s Pittsburgh who doesn’t believe in the land of opportunity for either himself or his sons. The lack of opportunity and how it affects Washington’s character Troy Maxon is insightful not only regarding Maxon, but also how today’s working class, middle-aged white men see and react to closing doors in their now clouded land of dreams.
- Hidden Figures, the new Oscar nominated 2016-17 movie also based on a book by the same name. This is an uplifting movie about NASA and the role female black mathematicians played in helping America win the space race set off by Sputnik’s launch in 1957. It shows the importance of education, how federal laws create opportunity [the Defense Department was required to provide equal opportunity jobs], and the role of personal responsibility in staying current as technology continues to threaten job prospects. The movie is not about the white coal miners in West Virginia, but easily leads to discussions about their approach to a declining industry versus that of Dorothy Vaughan, played by Octavia Spencer in the movie. It is also fascinating to compare and contrast the women in Hidden Figures with the role played by Viola Davis in Fences.
- Leslie Jones’ SNL skit on Hidden Figures from January 21, 2107. Through humor, Jones makes the most cogent case for teaching black history year round with ever-more current stories of success. It’s four minutes of pure insight.
It’s hard to be empathetic if you don’t understand someone’s story. And, it’s hard to understand someone, if you don’t know their story. As Jones said in her skit: “You got to tell everyone’s story.”
In The Tempest, the most famous writer and White actor Shakespeare wrote the famous line “What’s Past is Prologue.” I never understood Shakespeare without annotated notes, and finally came across this study guide that gives the quote meaning for me in today’s world.
“What’s past is prologue,” then, translates roughly as “What’s already happened merely sets the scene for the really important stuff, which is the stuff our greatness will be made on.”
The first Blacks arrived in America in 1619, likely not of their own volition. America became an independent nation in 1776. Slavery was abolished in 1865. Thurgood Marshall became the first Black Justice on the Supreme Court in 1967. In 2008, America elected the first Black president who added to the growing black history to be studied in Februaries going forward. The 2016 election again created a new type of American president, but one with apparently little understanding or appreciation of either American or Black history. Taking a page from Shakespeare, all these events are now prologue. The future is yet to be written by other great writers, leaders, citizens and activists including each of us in our own ways. Let’s start tapping those keys!