At Good Black News, February is an especially invigorating time. When Black History Month rolls around, people have more interest than normal in African-American history, music and culture, and GBN inevitably benefits from the heightened exposure. We make an extra effort to provide a wide variety of information and stories (historical and current) during this time, and point to events and programming we find to be educational as well as entertaining.
Even so, we are a small operation with limited (albeit growing) reach, and we know a lot of black folks feel skeptical about BHM — it always seems like the same old, same old — Martin, Malcolm, Rosa, and the black movie, tv show or person du jour get celebrated in the national news, and then everybody forgets (or tries to forget) about African-American history until next year.
Last night, however, as I was flipping through cable before going to bed, I noticed there was not only an increased amount of black programming (and not just on BET or TV One or PBS), it was more varied than ever. So much so, I wasn’t even sure what to watch: “Angel Heart” with Lisa Bonet and Mickey Rourke, a horror thriller set in New Orleans and the world of voodoo (which reminded me of a time where the media considered Bonet the controversial one from “The Cosby Show”), “School Daze”, the Spike Lee movie set at an all-black college in the South, or “Iceberg Slim: Portait of a Pimp”, a 2012 documentary produced by Ice T, primarily chronicling the author’s experiences in Chicago and Los Angeles.
I had been thinking about “School Daze” earlier that day, so I took it as a sign and flipped to that. It was the scene where the light-skinned sorority girls (lead by Tisha Campbell-Martin and Jasmine Guy) bump into the dark-skinned girls (lead by Kyme and Joie Lee) and go into a full-on musical fantasy where they square off as they sing “Good and Bad Hair.”
My jaw about dropped — I saw this movie in the theatre when I was in college, but I’d forgotten how provocative the lyrics and the visuals were. I mean, this movie was released in 1988 and had black women going hard for each other over hair, calling each other “high-yellow” and “jigaboo,” holding up fans with images of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy and Vivien Leigh as Scarlett to taunt one another! Up until Chris Rock‘s 2009 documentary “Good Hair,” when had this subject matter ever received exposure in mainstream entertainment?
I’d also forgotten how talented the actors and dancers were/are, blending traditional and historical dancing styles and choreography with contemporary steps, and how creative and original Lee was to even imagine doing a number like this in what was then only his second motion picture.
The next scene was a frat hazing scene where pledges where being paddled and this all-too-real violence (as well as the abhorrent misogyny that would soon be coming down the pipe) made me realize the film was deeper and pointed to more problems and issues in the black community than I’d recalled. “School Daze” received its share of flak (at the time and over the years) for being the hodgepodge of styles that it is, but it’s an important, innovative part of Lee’s work as well as black cinema, as relevant as “Dear White People” is in 2015, and fully worth a re-watch and discussion with the new generation of young people and college students.
Jazzed from this rediscovery, I flipped over to the Iceberg Slim documentary. Although I’ve known about Iceberg Slim for decades, I’ve never read his work, dismissing it based on its categorization as “gangsta” literature. Having matured since my 20s however (at least I think I have), I realized I really didn’t know anything about Iceberg Slim other than my perception, so perhaps I should learn more. I’m so glad I did. Not only was the documentary particularly well-executed (creative visuals, innovative music, interesting talking heads and dynamic footage of old Slim interviews), I learned what an intelligent man (Robert Beck) lay behind the Iceberg Slim persona, and how he wrote books such as “Pimp” and “Trick Baby” as cautionary tales rather than celebrations of street life. Even though I don’t (neither does he in his later years) condone or excuse his repulsive criminal behavior and abuse of women, I do recognize he artfully captured and described a very real part of the black experience in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
I also had no idea “Trick Baby” was made into a motion picture by Universal, which helped spur the burgeoning “Blaxploitation” film boom in the 1970s, or that he lived for years only ten blocks away from my grandparents in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles/Inglewood. It was equally fascinating to learn Birdman of Cash Money Entertainment acquired the rights to “Pimp” and Slim’s other works to keep them alive on the Cash Money Content imprint via Simon & Schuster. And now I want to read those books and get that movie.
All in all, these late-night viewings made me even more excited and energized about Black History Month. And when I looked at my DVR this morning, I saw a variety of options casually waiting for me there, too: the latest episodes of the “Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore”, “How To Get Away With Murder”, “Empire”, “Black-ish” and what I hear via Twitter was an incredible performance by D’Angelo on “Saturday Night Live” last night. If that wasn’t enough, I started writing this piece while watching NFL QB Russell Wilson attempt to lead the Seattle Seahawks to back-to-back Super Bowl wins, which, if he does, will be a first for an African-American quarterback. (And btw, what an unexpected treat to see Missy Elliott featured in the halftime show with Katy Perry — Missy was fire!)
We all have the ability, even casually, to celebrate and discover (or re-discover) our history, music, literature and culture and I invite all GBN followers to comment, tweet, email or share any unexpected, positive BHM experiences you have. I’m going to continue to chronicle mine alongside more formally-presented stories and articles — looking forward to hearing yours as well!
Onward and upward!