Oscar Hopes Aside, We Must Celebrate Our Own Achievements

Black culture needs recognition by the black community, not just the mainstream, like the Academy Awards.

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Belafonte’s unwavering commitment to Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement is well-known, but few are aware that he began his acting career in the basement of the Schomburg at the American Negro Theater. It was a community theater, “by, for, about and near black audiences,” as Belafonte noted in his 2011 memoir, My Song. It also helped launch the careers of Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee. It was precisely the kind of cultural space that Baraka and the Black Arts Movement leaders called for in the late 1960s.

Because of their legacy, the Golden Globes and Academy Awards are not the only games in town where black creativity is cultivated, honored and recognized.

Twenty years ago, Denzel Washington received the 1994 NAACP Image Award for best actor for his portrayal of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s critically acclaimed film. Although he lost the Oscar to Al Pacino for his role in Scent of a Woman, Washington had already won his first Academy Award for best supporting actor in Glory in 1989. When asked how he prepared for both roles, he mentioned the Schomburg. “It became my home away from home, and it's a great resource library up in Harlem,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross in 2008. “I can't say enough about the work that I did, not just on Malcolm X, but other parts over the years. I would always visit the Schomburg.”

When the 45th NAACP Image Awards show airs tonight, it will continue a tradition of honoring leading women and men and the best and brightest black writers, filmmakers and musicians that began in 1967 at the start of the Black Arts Movement. And like with so many others, the Schomburg Center played its part. Curators helped with research on 12 Years a Slave, Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley and The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross. Plus, four nominees work or have worked at the Schomburg and have used the collections:

* Chadwick Boseman, former Schomburg acting instructor, is nominated for 42.

* Shola Lynch, film curator, is nominated for Free Angela and all Political Prisoners.

* Deborah Willis, former photo curator, is nominated along with Barbara Krauthamer for the book Envisioning Emancipation: Black Americans and the End of Slavery.

* Jeanne Theoharis, adult-education curator, is nominated for the biography The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks.

The Schomburg and the NAACP are part of a cultural pipeline that supplies, sustains and celebrates talented people who have enriched our lives and transformed our society.

Khalil Gibran Muhammad is director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, and author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America.

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