Area Artists Feel They're Stuck in a 'Black Box'
Oberlin artist Johnny Coleman dives deep into the African American experience to bring history to life for his audiences. One of his recent pieces created a life-sized, rustic scene from the Underground Railroad in 1850’s Ohio. From hidden speakers, some imagined voices from the past flow into each other. That’s the sort of multi-sensory experience that makes Coleman a popular speaker in local classrooms, but he says those invitations start to have a familiar ring.
"They say, 'Listen, we’d like to have your project up, let’s schedule a talk. Um…February would be a great time.'"
Because, that’s Black History Month. The designation of February as a time to celebrate and explore African American culture dates back to 1926. Johnny Coleman says he gets a surplus of requests, this time of year. And he turns some of them down.
"And it’s not because I don’t support and feel Black History Month is valid --- I do," he says. "We’ve got to take every opportunity we have to get the story out. However, I’m resistant to this story being focused to only within this time frame."
It’s an issue that has long vexed choreographer Dianne McIntyre. As a young dancer, the Cleveland native quickly shot to stardom in the 1970s, and had a 30-year career in New York City. She too has fielded many requests for appearances in February.
"Why do I have to be just put there in the black box?" she asks.
That frustration sometimes makes her question the motivations of the people doing the booking. She recalls a past February invitation.
"Years ago," she says, "they had an event called, 'Dance, Black America', at an institution in New York. It was a very big festival. And when they invited me to be on it, I said, “Are you going to have the 'Dance, White America Festival'? And they’re like, 'Oh! What? What do you mean?'”
It’s a familiar story for Cleveland Public Library director Felton Thomas, as well, but as the leader of a major cultural institution, Thomas says he uses his February public appearances as a chance to covertly lobby for change.
"I certainly recognize that I receive more opportunities to speak during Black History Month than I do throughout the other months," he says, "but also I know that it’s an opportunity for me to get folks --- who may not be so enlightened --- to recognize that Black History Month should be celebrated 365 days a year."
For Oberlin’s Johnny Coleman, this is more than an issue of cultural pride --- it’s personal.
"Why is my practice --- and the narrative and the history it explores," he asks, "why is it viewed only in the context of: 'Well, it’s time for us to look at a black artist.' Right? As opposed to 'an artist'."
An artist who says it sometimes feels like he’s put into a folder and filed away, once the shortest month of the year is over.