Monday, February 20, 2017

Black History: Do We Know It?

Was it last year that Hollywood was chastised for nominating mostly white actors for awards?  The media also berated Tinseltown was making too few movies about Americans of non-white races.  The U.S. movie industry hastened to prove it is not least it would seem so by looking at the selection of the movies currently playing in the theater near you.  You can choose from Fences, I Am Not Your Negro, Moonlight, Loving and Hidden Figures and there are also Australian Lion and British A United Kingdom whose protagonists also are non-white. Movie theaters also may be doing their part to show these movies in honor of Black History Month. It is worth watching how long the trend will last.

I generally avoid Hollywood movies, but the subject of Hidden Figures had enough appeal to attract even a foreign movie junkie like me.  And it was not disappointing. Although formulaic like most Hollywood movies, it featured such charming characters that you could not but enjoy spending two hours in their company, cheering their victories. And perhaps more importantly, the movie sparked an interest in the real and fascinating history behind it.

The history of racism in the United States is much like the history of ethnic hatreds around the world.  In the civilized countries it is regulated by law and therefore less obvious, but it is always there, always present, simmering under the surface, waiting to bubble up.  Still, there have always and everywhere been people who are not racist, as we are reminded by Loving and A United Kingdom.

Filmmaker Kari Barber
Though I enjoyed Hidden Figures, the most fascinating black-themed movie I've seen this month is not one commercially made for entertainment, but a documentary that resulted from years of painstaking research, travel, interviewing and recording.  It is focused on the valiant efforts to save the remaining all-black towns in Oklahoma. I was lucky to see the film, titled Struggle and Hope thanks to my friendship with the filmmaker Kari Barber, an Oklahoma-born journalist, now a professor at the University of Nevada in Reno.

Few people know that Oklahoma once had at least 50 all-black towns and it hoped to become an all-black state. Even an Oklahoma-born journalist like Barber did not learn about it until later in life when she saw a blurb in a playbill for the Oklahoma musical, staged by Washington's Arena Theater.  "That part of history was not taught at schools," she told me. So Barber took interest and researched Oklahoma's black heritage.  She visited the remaining all-black towns and was amazed with what she learned. Only a dozen of those historic black towns remain today, some of them with no more than 25 residents who are struggling to survive.  They are building museums, organizing black rodeos and concerts, and raising funds online to pay their communities' debts and keep the towns on the map. A lot of time and effort without any guarantee of success.  Is it worth it? "I don't ever want to say that I was born and raised somewhere in the town that does not exist any more," said one woman in historic all-black town of Tallahassee in Oklahoma.  So yes, it is worth it if you are fighting to preserve your identity.

The Oklahoma land rush of 1889
Thanks to Barber's dedication, the project Struggle and Hope resulted in a series of web videos and finally a feature-length documentary summarizing the main themes. The film was launched in February in Oklahoma and will make a tour of independent film festivals in the United States and Europe where, I suspect, it will get more attention than here.  Europeans, who fell in love with the Wild West by watching Hollywood westerns and reading Zane Grey's books, will be interested in the real story behind the fiction they were fed during their youth. 

Oklahoma Rancher featured in Struggle and Hope

As the saying goes, history is written by the victors.  Most of the U.S. history books expound on the American War of Independence, the excellence of our "founding fathers", the Constitution, the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement and various steps in the fight to eliminate segregation. Only en passant do they mention that Jefferson, a principal writer of the Declaration of Independence, owned slaves and that his grand thoughts on liberty probably did not include them.

In recent years, more curious scholars have come up with less than shiny details about our great ancestors. Jefferson, it appears had a relationship with a black slave after the death of his wife, and had at least one child with her.  Very likely more, but he never acknowledged any.

One of the best history books that I have read in recent years is Nancy Isenberg's White Trash. Refreshingly, American people, including the poorest, play the main role in this book while the victors, the leaders and the wealthy only have supporting roles.  I'll let you read the book and make your own judgement, but one of the remarks that really opened my eyes had to do with the poor white people's attitude toward African Americans.  Isenberg or someone she quotes in the book noted that the most disadvantaged white people, those at the bottom rung of the social hierarchy, those often called "white trash," could accept their destiny a lot easier if they had someone else to look down on. In the past, they could look down on black slaves, today many choose to look down on non-white immigrants.

Oklahoma's Cowboy
Also recently, historians have pointed out that there have been all-black U.S. military battalions whose bravery in various battles has never been adequately recognized, and that there have been wealthy, accomplished and successful black businessmen in fields other than basketball, football and entertainment.  Stories about the role of other racial groups in the U.S. history also have begun emerging. But most textbooks still would have you believe that all the progress in this country has been achieved by the white race. African Americans are portrayed mostly as descendants of slaves whose whole heritage is nothing but fight against racism and discrimination.  

"There's so much that has been left out," said Barber. "There are so many stories that have not been told and, really, when we tell these stories, it makes us a richer country and it makes us appreciate and understand each other better." Barber hopes her film will inspire others to make books and movies that explore parts of the U.S. history that are missing from the textbooks.

Many of the movies shown this month do exactly that.  The question is whether there will be more of them after February ends.  I also wonder if any future remake of the classical Oklahoma musical will feature black cowboys.

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