There are two divergent views of Black History Month. One says the February celebration does indeed call significant attention to the vital contributions of African Americans to the culture and life of this country.
The other sees it as an excuse for ignoring black history the other 11 months.
In 1926, the educator Carter G. Woodson founded what was then known as Negro History Week. From the start, this man, born of former slaves, expressed the fervent hope that the celebration would outlive its usefulness. He conceived of a time when African Americans would become such an integral part of American history that any special highlighting would seem a redundancy.
Woodson died in 1950, as the first vague stirrings of the civil rights movement were happening in the South. Twenty-six years later, with Woodson's dream of complete integration struggling with the reality of a still-divided nation, Negro History Week became Black History Month.
"I had hoped that it would have passed by now," Lorna Hill says of Black History Month. Hill is the founder and artistic director of Ujima Company, which will present Phillip Hayes Dean's "The Sty of the Blind Pig" as its Black History Month offering. The play, directed by Phil Knoezer, opens tonight and continues through March 11.
About Black History Month occurring in the shortest and coldest month, long-time Buffalonian Hill says, "I'm not sure, but it may be some kind of cruel joke."
Actually Woodson, who likely never experienced Buffalo winters, chose a week in February because that's when African Americans celebrate the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
Cold or not, the February celebration does have its value, Hill believes. "I do respect the necessity for its existence. In a place like Buffalo, if we didn't have Black History Month the accomplishments of African Americans would go unnoticed. Buffalo ignores real talent in the African American community, and it's urgent for young people to be aware that all people create theater - that it isn't only theater of European construction."
Claude Purdy, the Louisiana-born director of Studio Arena Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying," also sees the value of Black History Month. "Any emphasis or recognition of our particular contributions - since black history is so slighted in the official history books - is welcome," he says.
"A Lesson Before Dying," set in segregated Louisiana in 1948, "powerfully dramatizes that particular time and place," according to Purdy. Romulus Linney's script is a stage adaptation of Ernest Gaines' best-selling novel about a wrongly accused young black man condemned to death. The play opened Thursday in Studio Arena Theatre and will continue through March 11.
Theater's vaunted ability to take on even the most difficult social issues is severely tested by black plays such as "Mississippi and the Face of Emmett Till," in the Paul Robeson Theatre through March 4. It recounts the grim story of the abduction and brutal torture/killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till at the hands of two white men who falsely charged Emmett of flirting with a white woman.
The play's director, Laverne Clay, says some people just don't want to be reminded of one of the most terrible of the many racist crimes committed in the South before the dawn of the civil rights movement. "This woman said to me that she'd been suppressing this for 40 years," Clay says. "I can understand her. But it's a piece of history. It should be told."
What made the opening of "Emmett Till" especially poignant was the presense of Mamie Till Mobley, the co-author of the play with Chicago playwright David Barr. Mobley is the mother of Emmett and the person who, through her determined action, helped transformed the tragedy of her son's death into a rallying cry for the coming civil rights movement.
Her attendence at the play on opening night, and her participation in a forum afterward, was a prime illustration of the kind of event that can scatter lingering doubts about the value of Black History Month.
Along with Robeson, Ujima and Studio Arena producing plays this year for Black History Month, the Buffalo Ensemble Theater is presenting "The New Beginning Baptist Choir," which continues through Saturday. It features gospel music, dance and storytelling.
Clay would like to see more theaters joining in. "More is better," he says. Hill is not so sure.
"Black History Month is our only opportunity to highlight AfricanAmerican talent, to show what a theater like Ujima can do," she says. "Black History Month used to be our most successful time at the box office. People were - for that month and that one month only - keenly interested in our African American theater. It would help us make up for leaner times during the rest of the year."
Now it's getting increasingly difficult to draw larger audiences during the celebration, she says.
"Ujima's audience is faithful and very diverse," she says, "but not large enough. When the larger, more prestigious theaters are basically selling your product, it cannot help but diminish your success. We are not able to compete. We simply don't have the resources."
Clay, for his part, would like to see theaters doing black plays throughout the season.
"February seems the only time black-themed plays are featured and the only time a black actor can get work. Theaters of all sorts ought to nurture black audiences all year round."
Ujima's current financial problems that forced the "The Sty of the Blind Pig's" postponement earlier in the month have not dampened Hill's spirits when it comes to mounting Hanes' play. "It is a wonderful play," she says. "It is about the relationship among generations in a family and how a person's life can be altered by these relationships. It is beautiful and sad simultaneously."
In Purdy's view, Black History Month can only have meaning if theaters press forward with plays that explore African American life in all its varied dimensions. Playwright August Wilson said it best, Purdy thinks, in a statement about artist Romare Bearden:
"What I saw (in Bearden's art) was black life presented in its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to every day life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presense. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience."
Black History Month founder Woodson hoped all Americans would someday experience this fullness and nobility of black life. He created a week for that purpose and it now has become a month. If it can become a celebration that continues throughout the year, Woodson's vision may yet be fulfilled.