Day #51: De La Soul – “Me, Myself, and I”
I almost went through the whole of February without posting anything related to Black History Month. It wasn’t intentional. There were a lot of things I’ve wanted to (and did) write about lately. But, fate has shined a sunny beam on me and allowed me to be as last minute as possible by creating this here extra day in the month. (Happy Leap Year, y’all). For the occasion, I wanted to (and now did) plug photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell’s show, The Black List, which runs at the National Portrait Gallery until April. Go see it.
The show debuted back in October, but I bring it up now because it reveals something about the way we are taught to think about Black History Month. That is, to take it literally, as though someone isn’t worth mentioned until they’re dead. History doesn’t have to just be about what was. You can see its impact on what is. The Black List demonstrates that. Greenfield-Sanders and Mitchell quite literally came up with a list. A list of 50 men and women (whittled down from 175) considered to be the “‘who’s who’ of African Americans whose intelligence, talent, and determination have propelled them to prominence in disciplines as diverse as religion, performing arts, medicine, sports, art, literature, and politics.” Folks like Nobel Laureate and partial inspiration for the project, Toni Morrison; former pro basketball player and airline pilot, Kareem Abdul Jabar; the Reverend Al Sharpton; blacksploitation director, Melvin Van Peebles; full-time badass, Samuel L. Jackson; Def Jam records co-founder, Russell Simmons; the first black governor of Massachusetts, Deval Patrick; and civil rights activist, Barbara Harris are on the list, among many others.
Greenfield-Sanders photographed them, and accompanying placards briefly describe their histories. Form never overtakes content here. The subjects themselves are rather muted; there really isn’t any flash or glam. In fact, a lot of the photos look like something that may appear in the About the Author section at the back of a book. But, that’s the point. The sitters themselves are what is important. The large, crisp photos hang on the gray walls of the gallery and standing at a distance looking out at the whole of these, it’s almost as though the people are actually there. That you could almost imagine their legs taking shape beyond the edge of the frame, and that they’re standing a perfectly measured distance from one another, and almost on the verge of conversation.
Shhh! Angela Davis is about to say something!
But, it isn’t just that somebody wrote a book or directed a movie. Greenfield-Sanders and Elvis Mitchell aimed to show how race shapes identity and experience. And while Greenfield-Sanders’s photographs identified those who made up the “who’s who,” it is really Elvis Mitchell, who interviewed them, that gave their stories depth. Three and four minute excerpts of the interviews ran during the exhibit. That was really my favorite part of the show. Seeing Toni Morrison warmly talking about studying literature in college, and how the curriculum centered around white male authors who’s experiences didn’t really speak to her. Keenan Ivory Wayans said something similar about film and TV when he was starting out. With In Living Color, he said, “it wasn’t about doing a black show. I wanted to do a show that was really about everybody. Everybody that Hollywood didn’t know what to do with, I knew what to do with.” Indeed.
Whoopie Goldberg joked with happy expletives how casting directors couldn’t figure out what to do with her hair (she got a lot of laughs). Slash (who’s mother is black) talked about his cousins turning him on to funk music as a teenager, and how that informed the way he plays guitar. Maya Rudolph (also half black) said she didn’t identify with one race or the other. Chris Rock talked about how Eddie Murphy “revolutionized acting.” Lee Daniels mentioned his love of John Waters movies and talked about the expectations of gay men. I mean, there’s 50 people in this show, so I could go on and on. But, Christ what a good show. If you can’t make it out there, you can still find the photographs on the National Portrait Gallery’s website. As for the interviews, you can find snippets on YouTube (though not many that were included in the show). HBO produced the entire 3-part series from which those are excerpted from, and I heard that it will soon be available more widely.