For various reasons, many black folks feel like this year’s Black History Month has been one huge “L” for Black America. Rightfully so.
From the racist “motif” choices of the world’s leading fashion houses to the allegedly false allegations and subsequent arrest of actor Jussie Smollett, to the indictment of singer, songwriter, and serial sexual predator R. Kelly, February 2019 has been exhausting.
More than a few of us will be happy to see this shortest month of the year draw to a close.
Between creating, commenting and sharing a seemingly endless stream of memes featuring Smollett as the butt of jokes, some on black social media are calling for a do-over of sorts. Perhaps Black America should try again during some other month this year to make right all that went wrong.
Up to print time, these at best, half-hearted attempts at black formation and synchronization on the matter have and will continue to fall short.
The now month-long observance which Carter G. Woodson began in 1919 as Negro History Week was neither decided by consensus nor given to Black America because it is the shortest month of the year. The son of former slaves, Woodson was the second African American to obtain a Ph.D. degree from Harvard University.
Nobody ever freely gave black people in this country anything more than a hard time, including Woodson who pioneered the celebration of “Negro History Week” during the second week of February in 1926, to coincide with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
It’s understandable that black folks have been scurrying to salvage what is left of this year’s observance. According to Black Twitter, plans for #BlackHistorySummer are already underway.
Then came the Oscars when God, it seemed, finally heard the prayers of Black America.
Queen Mother Cicely Tyson, and the glory of every black mother ever arrived at Vanity Fair’s red carpet on the arm on B. Michael.
Pose’s Billy Porter wowed us with a “sharply tailored tuxedo jacket overtop a full-skirted strapless velvet gown” which stopped a swooning Glenn Close in her tracks.
Lisa Bonet also summarily shut down the request of a red carpet reporter for her husband and actor Jason Momoa to do the “haka,” a sacred traditional dance of the Maori people—for the pleasure of her white gaze. In short, Lady Bonet said there wasn’t going to be any “tribal” Magic Mike foolery in this dancerie.
And this was before the Oscars had even begun. Then they did. We won. And we kept on winning!
One of our favorite teenage actresses, Regina King, won her first-ever Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for Barry Jenkins’ “If Beale Street Could Talk.”
Mahershala Ali, who won his first Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Jenkins’ “Moonlight” in 2017, secured his second for Best Supporting actor in “Green Book.” Ali joined Denzel Washington as the second Black actor to receive two competitive Academy Awards in his career.
Veteran filmmaker Spike Lee, regaled in purple as an homage to the late Prince—replete with custom gold Air Jordan 1s—lept into the welcoming arms of his Morehouse College brother Samuel L. Jackson while claiming his his-ever Oscar for co-writing “BlacKkKlansman.”
Then came “Black Panther.”
Hampton University alumna Ruth E. Carter, who got her start in Spike Lee’s “School Daze,” took home her first-ever Oscar for Best Costume Design.
For her creation of the mythical city of Wakanda, Hannah Beachler won the Oscar for Best Production Design.
Both were the first-ever African-American women to win their categories, and also represent the first to win in a non-acting category since Irene Cara in 1984.
Yet, because Wakanda isn’t real, the Academy Awards reminded us our place on the totem of whiteness with its selection of “Green Book” as Best Picture.
Ostensibly, “Green Book” should have been the story of black, queer classical pianist Dr. Donald Shirley and his racist, white driver Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow Deep South.
In dedicating the majority of its storytelling to the ways in which Shirley’s relationship with a racist Vallelonga is transformed through proximity, audiences were treated to another show of white redemption.
This is a seductive narrative—the notion of the white savior in films—for all Americans who want to believe that black people have the power to love white people out of the power and privilege they enjoy as a result of racism.
Unfortunately, this scenario reveals less about how to change the attitudes of racists than it does about the deeply systemic issues present in modern storytelling itself.
That Ali, who played Shirley, was billed supporting actor in a movie about Shirley should have signaled for Ali that those involved were not really concerned with ensuring the accuracy and authenticity of Shirley’s story. Hell, the film’s writing team didn’t even consult Shirley’s very much alive relatives.
And that is precisely why when the movie’s all-white-male creator-team assembled center stage to claim the Academy’s arguably most coveted prize—Best Picture—Black America won the battle, but lost the war.
Despite an awards show too black to be dubbed #OscarsSoWhite, white Hollywood is persistent in its attempts to dangerously absolve itself and white America from embracing—and truly celebrating—narratives of and by black people. In the end, whiteness has been centered as rightness—yet again.
So until next year, my People, or maybe #BlackHistorySummer [smirks in Chadwick Bozeman].
A historian and storyteller whose research interests include black higher education and college student activism, Crystal A. deGregory Ph.D., serves as the founder of the HBCUstory, an associate professor of history and was formerly the award-winning inaugural director of the Atwood Institute for Race, Education, and the Democratic Ideal at Kentucky State University.