Black History Month round-up

Opinion: Columns

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Stan West

The window between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day and the end of February, for me, is the unofficial alpha and omega of Black History Month, its official celebration time. As every Oak Park schoolchild knows, it began in 1926 as "Negro History Week," thanks to Harvard-trained historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, and in 1976 turned into Black History Month "by proclamation of President Gerald Ford as part of this nation's centennial," according to Profiles of Great African Americans (Publications International, 1996).

The month is designed to offer Americans of all stripes a chance to celebrate the accomplishments of black heroes and sheroes, many of whom were relatively unnoticed because of the country's sordid segregated past. And while "post-racial" debates do occur today during the Obama administration era with some feeling we're past the point where we need to aggressively acknowledge people of color despite the continuing institutional structural impediments of white privilege, folks on the other side often muse, "Ain't it a damn shame that the oldest people on the earth get the shortest month of the year!" And so it goes ...

What I decided to do is take the reader on a journey with prosaic snapshots of selected stops I've made during this period and allow you to judge whether it's worth it or not to celebrate diversity.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast on Jan. 16 at DePaul University's Student Center. This semester, I'm a "professional advisor" to a graduate film student named Betty Jackson whose Ms. Mary More film on a black Oak Park shoeshine entrepreneur of the same name was featured prominently in the 2007 Oak Park International Film Festival.

The opening of Goodman Theatre's Race on Jan. 23. While one Chicago Sun-Times critic refers to this controversial play as "the dramatic equivalent of a rigged minefield," I'd have to add that the ideology of playwright David Mamet seems drenched in conservative sewer water. For example, his self-described neo-conservative conversion from a former '60s liberal (with whom some Oak Parkers could identify) coincides with his tremendous success, but also at the expense of a handful of black professionals' ascendance in privileged white boardrooms. Take for instance the obnoxious, angst-driven "advocate" for the wealthy white male rapist of a black woman — a character who appears, more often than not, to mirror Mamet's own toxic stereotypes about women of color. Yet, to Mamet's credit, the only true hero of this radioactive racial melodrama is a black, female, Harvard-trained lawyer who challenges sexism, racism and white male privilege in a surprise flipping of the script. Director Chuck Smith took an ideologically-flawed script and brought it to life by staging talented actors who provided electrifying performances with otherwise static lines.

I interviewed architectural historian Carolyn Armenta Davis, who argues that "my work has no parallels to Oak Park's Frank Lloyd Wright." Davis offered a Black History Month lecture at Alliance Française on Feb. 7. Said Davis: "In Creativity Released: Designs from Black Architects in Paris, Dakar and Beyond, I presented designs of five Francophone architecture teams, showing a range of projects, from an elegant cube house in Normandy, France and the atelier of Françoise N'Thepe/Paris, France to the Bamako, Mali bank tower by Pierre Goudiaby/Dakar, Senegal, and the Atlantic Ocean waterfront open-air theatre of Francis Sossah/Abidjan, Cote D'Ivoire."

Banjo blues played as I perused the prime limited edition serigraph of "School Bell" by Romare Bearden at Macy's Black History Month exhibit, Feb. 9-21. Oak Park's Dr. George Bailey, who created Columbia College's "Blues as Literature" course, said Africans created the banjo, and "blues inspired Romare Bearden's paintings." The event, packed with 500 invited guests, showcased some of the late, great painter's best works to help celebrate his 100th birthday. It was sponsored by the André Guichard Gallery, a prominent Bronzeville establishment, owned by two culturally black brothers of Haitian-Cuban ancestry. Spokeswoman and sister-in law Frances Guichard summed up the exhibit this way: "It is in this special space where we can view Romare Bearden's work and reflect and rejoice in our own rich history and culture."

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