It’s more coincidence than irony that the 89th annual Academy Awards ceremony will air during Black History Month. Long criticized for its painfully obvious lack of diversity, I’m optimistic that Hollywood is starting to see the writing on the wall.
The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite brought attention to an industry that has systematically excluded actors, writers and producers for most of its nine-decade history. With "Fences," "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" being nominated for Best Picture, I hope this ushers in the new status quo of acceptance. Black actors and storylines should no longer have to follow traditional stereotypes to be recognized by the Academy.
That coveted gold statue represents more than recognition from one’s peers. It represents a significant increase in contract value. The Oscar isn’t just an award. An Oscar is a financial windfall – a windfall that a black artist shouldn’t have to play a slave or mistress to partake in.
Whether it be on screen or real life, black lives matter. No, that’s not an admission that other lives don’t matter. It’s a reminder to a nation that has a poor short term memory. Black Lives Matter doesn’t prioritize lives. Instead, the movement seeks to shine light where there is shadow. During a breast cancer awareness campaign, we wouldn’t dare lecture survivors handing out pink ribbons about how all cancer patients matter. It is understood that everyone dealing with malignancy deserves attention, but right now the focus is one particularly drastic case.
As we strive to achieve a more perfect union, the first two months of every year, we give only lip service to diversity. In January, the federal holiday that commemorates Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is often reduced to a four-day weekend and a school-aged child reciting bits of the "I Have a Dream Speech."
Dr. King has become a novelty, a caricature of himself in a world of social media and fake news. While Dr. King was a titan of love, his ethos of non-violence was a tool to show exactly how violent white supremacy can be – even when unprovoked. No quota or affirmative action policy will ever substitute organic multiculturalism. Immigrant or native born, the perspectives of those who are different matter just as much as those who are the same. The marginalized rarely request more than what’s afforded the majority. However, it’s immoral to expect minorities to accept any less than anyone else.
Then comes February and the celebration of Black History Month – the shortest month of the year in which we celebrate two presidents' birthdays and Valentine’s Day. Black history is American history. Unfortunately, a special designation is required otherwise some facts would forever remain hidden figures.
The cognitive dissonance that some people feel when they walk into a room full of people of color is exactly what we should strive to extinguish. It is the homogeneous space that should cause us to question our environment. Milwaukee has a bad case of side-stepping the tough conversations on race. Black History Month shouldn’t have to be some rigorous academic study of names and dates, nor should it be used to kindle guilt in those less enlightened. If black history was taught side by side, in chronological order, with American history, then February could be designated for lovers and presidents.
Black history is culturally rich. The contributions of African Americans to art, science, music and cuisine is exemplary. Unfortunately, too much of that history remains a mystery. Diversity can be explored without being exploited. Stepping into an unfamiliar space is difficult. Just like riding a bike, the initial challenge eventually becomes a skill not soon forgotten and invaluable.
How shameful that diversity is viewed as a burdensome chore in the name of appearing politically correct. Who wants to participate in a loathsome effort that is bound by a lawsuit on the low end and white discomfort at the ceiling?
Our approach, on both sides, has been wrong. It has been contrived and created with an air of suspicion.
Black history has value. The American people deserve to know the great effort that was poured into the making of this republic. The fight for rights and freedoms that didn’t just provide opportunity to black people, but all people, is our shared story. Dozens of movements spawned from the great belief that we are all created equal, regardless of status, income, religion or sexual orientation.
Prejudice hurts everyone not just the one who is being judged. It should be a goal to find ways to incorporate the thoughts, feelings and perspectives from as many audiences as possible. The problems we face deserve to be analyzed by unlimited eyes. The demographic shift of America engenders fear and has influenced yet another election.
Now, we stand on the shoulders of a teachable moment. Now temporarily a nation ruled by xenophobia, we will soon learn that inclusion is our only solution.
Whether it be the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ new efforts or the Milwaukee Film Festival’s Black Lens program, we are moving in the right direction. If it takes a federal holiday to remember the birthday of Dr. King as the precursor to a month dedicated to the lesser known bits of our story, we are maturing as a society. If black lives have to matter in order for us to stop taking some Americans for granted, then we all win.
Happy Black History Month.
A year 2000 graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Sherwin Hughes began his professional career as a community organizer with the YMCA Community Development Corporation. In 2002, Hughes was offered a position as field representative for Congressman Tom Barrett (WI-5). In 2004, Hughes was hired as a statewide constituency director for the Kerry/Edwards campaign. After the presidential race of '04, Hughes was brought on as a business analyst in mayor Tom Barrett's department of administration-where he certified minority businesses for participation on city contracts.
In 2005, Hughes was appointed as Governor James Doyle's sole designee on the Wisconsin State Elections Board. In 2007, he would become chair. Sherwin was the only African American in state history to serve in the administrations of both an incumbent mayor and governor simultaneously In 2006, Hughes incorporated STH & Associates, LLC a political consulting firm. In 2008, Hughes became communications director for Wisconsin state senator Lena C. Taylor. In 2010, Hughes became Wisconsin state field director for Democrats for Education Reform. July 2012, Hughes became the host of "The Forum," a political talk show on WNOV in Milwaukee.