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BLAX Museum celebrates fifth anniversary showcasing Black history

Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Josiah Quarles honors poet Etheridge Knight at the BLAX Museum showcase held on Feb. 10 at Twinsburg Public Library.

The first BLAX Museum showcase in 2018 took place at Guide To Kulchar bookstore, formerly on the West Side of Cleveland. It was a cramped space with folding chairs positioned between the shelves.

“There were more people performing than in the audience,” said BLAX Museum founder Michelle R. Smith. “There was this sort of open mic, DIY feel to it.”

The name – a combination of “Black” and “wax” – was inspired by a project at her child’s school where the students dressed up as historical figures, like a wax museum.

“What an engaging and entertaining way to teach history,” Smith said. “Most adults understand the importance of history but don't necessarily enjoy or embrace learning about it.”

She’d draw on that inspiration years later when planning an event for Black History Month.

“I had this idea of, ‘Oh, we could take the wax museum concept and do it with artists,’” she said. “So, what would it be like if artists paid tribute to notable figures in history through art?”

Despite the name museum, the mission is to put together an annual showcase. Local artists choose a prominent Black historical figure to highlight with their craft and then write poetry, perform music, read monologues, share photography or create visual art. Smith herself is a performer, as is her mother and her husband, Josiah. This year, a new family member joins the ranks.

“One of the newbies is actually my dad,” Smith said. “He picked the saxophone back up during the pandemic, which he played as a younger man and had put it down. So, then my mom whispered in my ear, ‘You should let your dad do BLAX.’”

Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
“People want to be inspired. They want to be entertained," Smith said. "One of the things that makes BLAX work is that people want to see these figures, hear about them and also be in a group of people who have the same desires and hunger for community, history and legacy.”

From those humble bookstore beginnings, the showcase moved to its current home at East Cleveland Public Library, with this year’s performances taking place Saturday, Feb. 18, at 1 p.m. In 2021 and 2022, virtual performances were created online in partnership with Twinsburg Public Library. The first live event in Twinsburg took place on Feb. 10. Also this year, a third performance will be offered at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage on Feb. 22.

Several prominent Black figures being spotlighted this year are singers Nina Simone and Billie Holiday, writer and author Octavia Butler, saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and novelist Alice Childress.

“What you hope is that they walk away with a couple of names that they didn’t know and they pick up a phone or sit down at a laptop and they Google. And then, if they’ve learned about one more person they didn’t know or a concept about the country or the culture that they didn’t have, well then, there you go,” Smith said.

A native of Akron and graduate of Kent State University, Jean-Marie Papoi has been working in the field of video production for 15 years. Since joining Ideastream Public Media in 2016, she's enjoyed filming and telling the stories of community members throughout Northeast Ohio.