Do we still need Black History Month? A conversation about the annual celebration
The origins of Black History Month began in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February as “Negro History Week.” Decades later after shifting to a monthlong event, Black History Month was recognized by the U.S. government in 1976.
In honor of this month’s celebration, The Times spoke with Naima Keith, deputy director of exhibits and programs for the California African American Museum in L.A.’s Exposition Park, about the significance of Black History Month and the overlooked contributions of black artists.
Is the museum doing anything special to celebrate Black History Month?
The beauty of working for a culture-specific museum … is that we celebrate African American art, history and culture all year round. While we’re not necessarily doing anything special in relation to Black History Month, we are launching a new series called Activism Now. It’s really an opportunity for our visitors to come together and hear from some of the most prolific voices as it relates to what’s happening in our political climate.
We wanted to provide a platform for people to talk about the challenges, opportunities and consequences of social activism. Our first speaker is going to be rapper David Banner; it’s going to happen next week. We’re also having Elaine Brown, the first female to run the Black Panther party, on Feb 22.
Was the new series in response to President Trump’s election?
No, actually, the calendar came out before he was inaugurated. The activism series was not in relation to Trump, per se. I think museums are great spaces for conversation. Art can spark that, public programs can spark that and history exhibitions can spark that. It’s more about feeling the sense of urgency to hear from people that have entered this dialogue from several different points. I think people are thinking, “What do I do or what is my role, what power do I have?”
I think after the election, people were surprised — no matter which way you voted — and I think there was this “what now?” [feeling]. I think we wanted to provide an opportunity and a platform to help think about that question.
Did you happen to catch Trump’s remarks about Black History Month?
I haven’t. I’ve only seen the pictures, I haven’t had a chance to actually read the article.
Do you think we still need a Black History Month?
I do think it’s still needed. While we choose to celebrate black history all year round, I appreciate the fact that this month, at least people are paying extra special attention to the contributions that African Americans have made in society. For that reason, I do support Black History Month. But as someone who’s devoted themselves to black history, art and culture, I do enjoy celebrating those facts all year round. It’s something I try to do every day.
Can you talk about the contributions of black artists from the West Coast?
I would say art-wise there have been a number of pioneering African American artists that have worked in ways that have inspired younger generations both here in California and beyond. For example, David Hammons is an artist that is not originally from California but spent many years in California and I really do believe came into his own as an artist here in L.A. Many artists would identify his use of body prints and his sculptures as being a pioneering way of working. There’s other artists like Kerry James Marshall who is from L.A. and is enjoying a traveling retrospective right now. His celebration of the black figure and his painting ability have rightfully earned him the title of master.
I think that California artists are known for working in a technique called assemblage. It’s essentially when you’re taking disparate objects and combining them together to make an artwork. I think that’s a genre people can identify with the West Coast. And there have been a number of African American artists who have really taken on that way of working. An artist like Noah Purifoy [took objects] that may be trash or leftovers and castaways and created something beautiful.
Who are some overlooked Los Angeles or California figures in black art?
I am always trying to champion African American women. There’s someone like Senga Nengudi, for example, who is a performance artist and also makes these amazing sculptures out of pantyhose. She’s been working for the past 40 years, and I think she’s gotten some attention, but I think she’s overlooked. I think there’s someone like Samella Lewis who’s another artist living and working here in Los Angeles. She’s also an overlooked figure.
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