Black History Month is an occasion designated for appreciating the effects of the African diaspora on history as well as its continued effects on contemporary culture. “Diaspora” means scattering or dispersion; as such, the African diaspora loosely includes any of the African cultures spread across the globe outside of their African origins. Every February, Canada and the United States observe Black History Month to appreciate the contributions that diverse Black communities have made and continue to make within their cultures.
One of the many ways to engage with Black History Month is to explore Black art that investigates Black identity, through both historical and contemporary settings. There are many examples of Black art in this vein. I have attempted to choose four examples that I think are exceptional in their own right, as well as in their connection to Black History Month. Even though each of the artists’ voices might belong to a specific national context, they are all still writing from within the African diaspora. Each is contributing to a global African culture. Here are my suggestions for which artworks to explore this February (chosen somewhat randomly and arranged in no particular order).
1. Lorna Goodison’s “Passing the Grace Vessels of Calabash”
Image Source: University of Toronto
Goodison was born in Jamaica in 1947 and became Poet Laureate of Jamaica in 2017. Her poem “Passing the Grace Vessels of Calabash” describes art of the enslaved people as an escape from grief, loss and destruction. A calabash is a large gourd found in the tropics that was used as a water jug and was often intricately ornamented by its owner. Goodison’s attention to the artistic medium that was thriving in Black communities during the slave trade and its connection to herself in the present and Africa in the distant past re-examines migration and the resilience of black cultures around the world.
2. Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” (2018)
Image Source: Wikipedia
This film examines race relations in 1970s America through the lens of a black cop who infiltrates a local KKK rally. It is sometimes violent and quite often includes swearing and slurs. But both of these aspects speak to the historical issues of the period while also questioning contemporary violence regarding race. The clips from the riots in Charlottesville, for example, force the viewer to take a hard look at racism in the 70s without any moral superiority, always a risk when examining historical issues. Watching Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) and especially Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) alternate between racial acceptance and a façade of racism audible in a barrage of racial slurs serves to remind that racism is never as far from us as one would hope.
3. Toni Morrison’s “A Mercy” (2008)
Image Source: Goodreads
A Mercy is a novel set in 17th century, slave-trading North America. Like Morrison’s other novel, Beloved (which won a Pulitzer Prize), this is a story about a mother and daughter who have both been enslaved and are forever tormented by the ensuing circumstances, which are beyond their control. She presents a vivid historical world that is at once familiar to any modern reader. Lurking beneath this world that bristles with opportunity and adventure, however, are violence and misfortune that ensnare nearly every character as they try to live happily. This representation of the sometimes-overlooked horrors that were involved in settling North America is vitally important to anyone interested in America’s origins, even if it can be a bit heavy handed.
4. Zadie Smith “White Teeth” (1999)
Image Source: British Council
Zadie Smith is a British author whose first novel, White Teeth, debuted in 1999. It examines a racially diverse cast of characters in London who are all struggling to find their identity within the competing forces of modern culture and their ethnic histories. Smith is Black, but her attention to the identities of so many different ethnicities inspires a generous empathy for one’s own neighbours that is remarkably kind-hearted. This book takes a real hard look at the difficulties of finding individual identities in a globalized world while offering such a breadth of empathy and understanding that the reader, captivated and amazed, cannot help but read.
This list does not presume to be exhaustive. But in these sophisticated expressions from the African diaspora an interest in other art with similar themes may be stirred. If so, exploring the works by the four artists herein is as good of primer as any because each artist featured herein has numerous excellent examples of their craft.
Hero Image Source: Vox