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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Lupita Nyong'o, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Steve McQueen

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

The disappointing results of last month's Golden Globes, with so few honors going to black actors and filmmakers—with the notable exception of 12 Years a Slave for best dramatic picture—begs a perennial question.

How much should blacks expect of mainstream America to validate their arts, letters, films and other creative works?

This is an old question. But it has particular resonance in the wake of the recent passing of Amiri Baraka, the poet, playwright, activist and intellectual. It was his seminal 1963 book Blues People that set the standard for jazz criticism and helped to canonize the academic study of black music half a century ago. He influenced a renaissance of arts and culture in black communities nationwide, from Watts to Harlem, known as the Black Arts Movement.

“It was about building your own community of arts uptown,” Baraka said last fall at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where Blues People was honored.

The lesson he imparted is critically important. Cultural work must be celebrated and preserved by institutions and by the people who sustain it. This is not to say that next Sunday's Oscars are irrelevant to black folks. Nor is it to say that who wins an Academy Award this year does not matter to recognizing universal themes—joy, suffering, love and the triumph of the human spirit—in the work of black artists, writers and filmmakers. It is to say that black institutions matter with equal and in some ways greater importance.

Here’s why.

Black people indelibly shaped America’s cultural landscape and her political institutions, too. American music, for example, is incomprehensible without an understanding of spirituals, blues, jazz, R&B and hip-hop. This music, like other artistic expressions, created the possibility for new ideas to flourish, for new forms of intimacy and dialogue to develop and for new realities to emerge. It is a testament to the cultural struggle, the ways in which music has helped to expand the very meaning and practice of American democracy to this day. Without the soundtrack of black America or the voices of black artists, there would be fewer immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. There would be fewer white female CEOs. The gay-rights and same-sex marriage movements might still be in their infancies. And progressivism might have died with the New Deal.

But for the Fisk Jubilee Singers or Bessie Smith or Duke Ellington or Stevie Wonder or Chuck D, it is harder to imagine the nation we live in today and the apotheosis of racial democracy symbolized by the two-term presidency of Barack Obama.

Who sustained those artists along the way? Who recognized their achievements? Preserved their legacies? Made possible their embrace by the mainstream, here and across the globe?

Exactly a century ago, the NAACP, the nation’s oldest civil rights organization, began awarding the Spingarn Medal for exceptional achievement by an African American in any field of endeavor. More than a dozen of those honorees have been in the arts, from Marian Anderson (1939) and Paul Robeson (1945) to Harry Belafonte (2013). Even before them, Harlem Renaissance artists took pen to paper and voice to microphone, advocating “civil rights by copyright” and creating the cultural infrastructure upon which the Schomburg Center was founded in 1926 and sits today. In these early days, Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston were not only users of the collections but were also friends and collaborators with the first curator, the Afro-Puerto Rican bibliophile Arturo Alphonso Schomburg. They all helped make the world anew.