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.
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.
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.