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Arts & Culture

Artists Frustrated With Being Put in a Black Box

David C. Barnett
Oberlin artist Johnny Coleman brings the African American experience to life for his audiences but feels attention to his work is often limited to February

For the past month, local arts and cultural organizations have been busy telling stories about African American history. But, some Ohio artists and cultural leaders find Black History Month to be a double-edged sword.

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.  This multi-sensory experience makes Coleman a popular speaker in local classrooms, but he says those invitations start to have a familiar ring

"[People say] listen, we’re going to have your project up, let’s schedule a talk…um…in February’s a great time," says Coleman.

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.  We’ve got to take every opportunity we have to get the story out," he says.  "However, I’m resistant to this story being focused to only within this time frame."

Credit David C. Barnett / WCPN
Choreographer Dianne McIntyre says she's also frustrated by the deluge of requests exclusively for Black History Month.

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?" McIntyre asks.

That frustration sometimes makes her question the motivations of the people doing the booking.  She recalls a past February invitation.

"Years ago, 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?' (laughs)."

Credit David C. Barnett / WCPN
Cleveland Public Library director Felton Thomas uses Black History Month as an opportunity for education.

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," says Thomas. "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."

And 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 --- 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.