Black History Month feels more urgent this year. Its roots go back to 1926, when the historian Carter G. Woodson developed Negro History Week, near the February birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, in the belief that new stories of Black life could counter old racist stereotypes. Now in this age of racial reckoning and social distancing, our need to connect with each other has never been greater.
As a professor of African-American studies, I am increasingly animated by the work of teachers who have updated Woodson’s goal for the 21st century. Just this week, my 8-year-old daughter showed me a letter written by her entire 3rd-grade art class to Faith Ringgold, the 90-year-old African-American artist. And my son told me about a recent pre-K lesson on Ruby Bridges, the first African-American student who, at 6, integrated an elementary school in the South. Suddenly, the conversations my kids have at home with my husband and me are the ones they’re having in their classrooms. It’s not just their history that belongs in all these spaces, but their knowledge, too.
Our stake in having a shared understanding of the past is as crucial today as it was in Woodson’s time. And because of greater efforts to integrate Black history across so many industries and institutions, I remain hopeful that what was once a week, and now a month, will soon become our way of life.
If you saw Sam Pollard’s recent documentary, “Black Art: In the Absence of Light” on HBO, you’d be reminded of David Driskell’s exceptional role as a champion, curator and creator of African-American art over the last half century. Inspired by Driskell’s landmark exhibition “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” which opened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, the film surveys African-American contributions to art, while also making the case for its central role in American culture today.
“David Driskell: Icons of Nature and History” is another type of tribute, the first major survey of his work since he died of the coronavirus, at 88, last year. Pulling from his personal estate and private and museum collections, the exhibition features over 60 works, including his 1956 painting “Behold Thy Son,” a visual elegy to Emmett Till, and homages to Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, two giants in the pantheon of American art to which Driskell now firmly belongs.
Hosted and produced by Henry Louis Gates Jr., this four-hour, two-part docu-series is a sweeping yet intimate portrait of a collective, the Black Church. Though the term might suggest this is a single religion or institution, the documentary quickly dispels such myths by exploring the varied beliefs the first African-American Christians, many of whom were forced to convert during slavery, had while retaining Yoruba or Muslim spiritual practices, brought with them from West Africa.
By 1794, when Richard Allen founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent Black denomination in the United States, these institutions not only became leaders in the antislavery movement but also safe spaces where African-Americans could gather and worship beyond the white gaze. Gates, who also wrote the accompanying book “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song,” guides us through that history, but he also gets personal. The series opens with him singing “I Believe I’ll Go Back Home,” a gospel song he grew up with.
One of my favorite virtual experiences this month has been watching the Dance Theater of Harlem’s most iconic performances, such as the founder Arthur Mitchell’s 1988 “John Henry,” a ballet tribute in honor of the artist-activist Paul Robeson and Robert Garland’s “New Bach,” a 2001 tribute to both George Balanchine and African-American social dances like the Harlem Shake.
In 1982, PBS aired “Stravinsky’s ‘Firebird’ by Dance Theatre of Harlem,” a thrilling behind-the-scenes documentary of the premiere of this “Firebird,” choreographed by John Taras and costumed by Geoffrey Holder. Set to the original Stravinsky score, the magical, glowing Firebird of the Russian folk tale is transported to a mythical Caribbean island here, and this geographical swap turns the dance into a vibrant, mesmerizing and unforgettable performance.