Oscar Snubs Provide Fruitful Lesson

The awards show's failure to memorialize more black stars reminds us why Black History Month is vital.

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Oscars 2013 (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- During February, there has been a lot of discussion about whether Black History Month is still relevant or needed, particularly because of the "racial progress" that blacks have made over the last few decades. In the Huffington Post, Trudy Bourgeois writes that "Black History Month Needs to Go" for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there isn't a "White History Month," and black history should be incorporated into classrooms and event programming throughout the year.

Bourgeois' comments demonstrate a profound lapse in judgment by failing to recognize how white privilege and power operate in this country, like the ability to eliminate ethnic-studies courses even in states where white students are the minority, and by promoting the far-fetched idea that those in power would believe it's their responsibility to incorporate Black History Month programming year-round. Call me crazy, but if black folks waited for nonblacks to take care of our needs, which actually benefit all of society (civil rights, black history), we'd still be in shackles and having separate and unequal access to pretty much everything.

One need only look at the 2013 Academy Awards to understand why Black History Month is needed, along with a concerted effort by all Americans to ensure that black history is included in course curricula, event programming and major publications throughout the year. At the Oscars, while there is a lot of uncertainty about who will go home with a golden statue, one thing is certain every year: the "In Memoriam" section of the show, which highlights actors who have passed away in the previous year. Each year, like clockwork, the producers of the Oscars know it is coming, and they fail to remember important black actors who not only have had commercial and critical success but also have made great contributions to the acting community.

Last year the academy left out actor Dick Anthony Williams, who was not only a veteran of the stage but also one of the most popular black actors of the 1970s. He also co-founded the New Federal Theatre, which was instrumental in showcasing the talent of black playwrights and actors including Amiri Baraka, Ntozake Shange, Samuel L. Jackson, Denzel Washington and Phylicia Rashad. Williams was an actor and a mentor to many who have gone on to tremendous success, and he died Feb. 16, 2012, during Black History Month and before the 2012 Academy Awards.

This year the academy left out Dick Anthony Williams again, as well as Al Freeman Jr., a veteran stage actor who worked in television and film, most famously as Elijah Muhammad in Spike Lee's seminal Malcolm X (1992). Freeman starred in television and film for more than 40 years and served as Howard University's chair of the department of theater arts for six of those years. Like Williams, his work went beyond the stage and screen, training young black actors for careers in the industry.

In addition to Freeman, the academy also forgot Donna Summer, whose iconic music has underscored numerous films, including 1983's Flashdance ("She Works Hard for the Money"), Zoolander and Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle. How can your music be such a major part of a classic film like Flashdance -- the entire appeal of which is based on music and dance culture -- and Oscar not remember you? We won't even mention Summer's music in the cult classic Thank God It's Friday.  

The academy didn't just forget black folks; it also forgot Latina actress Lupe Ontiveros, who starred in numerous films, including Selena (1997) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Native American actor-activist Russell Means starred in films like The Last of the Mohicans (1992) and Natural Born Killers (1994) and was the voice of Powhatan in Walt Disney's Pocahontas (1995). Ontiveros and Means starred in major Hollywood films -- some Academy Award-winning -- yet they were forgotten.

I know many are thinking that if Oscar forgot Andy Griffin, who delivered one of the most critically acclaimed performances in film history as the troubled Larry "Lonesome" Rhodes in Elia Kazan's film classic A Face in the Crowd (1957), then how would it remember Freeman or Summer? This is my point exactly; we cannot expect the Academy Awards or other dominant institutions, including schools, to know who and what is important to the black community -- or world community, for that matter. How hard is it to identify black film actors who have passed during Black History Month -- which is when the Academy Awards air?

It is often said that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. We certainly cannot expect the academy to recognize us even when we have earned the privilege, as evidenced by the continued lack of black films in Hollywood, award-caliber roles for black actors or black directing and writing opportunities. The academy's continued habit of leaving out black actors who matter to black folks -- and quite honestly helped nurture black actors who have elevated the acting game in Hollywood -- is yet another example of why debates about whether or not Black History Month is still needed should become history.

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large for The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.