To most, the bittersweet images of Haiti — one year after the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake — seem so far away. After all, many Americans, including several local residents, made heartfelt donations after we watched in horror the televised news reports of widespread suffering. Billions were pledged worldwide. Politicians lined up in solidarity with nonprofits, and it seemed there was a window of opportunity for long-range reconstruction in Haiti’s recovery process.

I’ve kept in touch with Oak Parkers with Haitian connections, such as nurse Michelle Darang Coleman and Ridge Art gallery owner Laurie Beasley. We worked together on a March fundraiser at Laurie’s Harrison Street gallery before Michelle went down to deliver medical supplies and Laurie visited the Haitian arts community to witness their inspired recovery process.

On Jan. 2, I spent time with my congressman, U.S. Rep. Danny Davis, who ate pumpkin soup — the traditional Haitian independence day treat (now 207 years old) — at a mostly French ceremony in Evanston’s Levy Center, sponsored by the Haitian Congress to Fortify Haiti and the Haitian Consulate General. The following week, I presented a paper and a film at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities on two service-learning classes I developed on Haitian art, which featured my students visiting Oak Park’s Ridge Art at Gallery Pink.

On Jan. 14, my freshman students presented “The Study of Haiti” exhibit at Columbia College’s Wong Center showcasing their marketing plan promos on the three galleries (Nicole Gallery in River North and Mambo Marilyn’s Haitian Art Studio in Pilsen, plus Ridge Art) along with their “found art” creations: altars to Gede, a Vodun spirit of life, death, sex and humor and Nkisi, a West African spirit of good health.

To draw attention to the richness and beauty of Haitian art, Laurie Beasley has curated a small show in the gallery at Oak Park Village Hall, 123 Madison St., that will run through Feb. 28.

A 7 p.m. reception will be held Friday, Feb. 18 in village hall, co-sponsored by the Oak Park Area Arts Council and the West Town chapter of Links, an African-American women’s service organization.

Return of the avatar

Oak Park-raised, best-selling author Anthony T. Browder is an African American who graduated from Oak Park and River Forest High School in 1969 and was inducted into the Tradition of Excellence gallery of notable graduates in 1998.”

In an interview a few years ago, Browder explained it this way: “When I was at OPRF, there were never more than two blacks there with me. … My first year there was during the 1965 race riots. Three years later, in April of 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated, I remember standing on my balcony feeling the loss of King and seeing once again the West Side, where I used to live, in flames. I felt conflicted because my friends and other family were in peril. I pushed on, learning as much as I could, blending in, but retaining my cultural identity, mainly by visiting friends and family on the West Side and keeping them as part of my support group.”

That recipe for survival for today’s students of color still works — at least that was part of the message delivered Jan. 30, via teleconference from his snowed-in Washington D.C. home to Afri-Ware Bookstore in Oak Park where Browder discussed his new book, in which he labels the best-selling movie of all time, Avatar, a “colonial narrative” where good white folks are the heroes to the weak darky victims. It’s a story that could hold local traction, he said, referring to how some white villagers exhibit the best of intentions around people of color.

According to Browder, the author of Survival Strategies for African Americans, and his newest work, Avatar Revisited: A Cultural and Historical Analysis, “Avatar is a complex piece of art that invites critical thinking.” Ironically, a virtual Browder was a lukewarm substitute for the percolating real person who usually fills this bookstore to capacity. Only a dozen attended the talk on Sunday.

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