Black Representation in the Arts Crucial to Dismantling Racism

Editorial Board

Black entertainers will abound at the 88th Academy Awards in February. Comedian and actor Chris Rock will host alongside presenters and performers including Whoopi Goldberg, Kevin Hart, The Weeknd and Pharrell Williams. But with the announcement of this year’s Oscar nominations on Jan. 14, media erupted with indignation. For the second year in a row, no actors or actresses of color were nominated for awards, sparking the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.

Arriving at the tail end of Black History Month, the ceremony itself will be snubbed by many Black actors and actresses. The Academy has scrambled to find more faces of color to fill the seats and stage before Feb. 28 and has announced “dramatic steps to alter the makeup of [its] membership.” Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a statement describing how, “in the coming days and weeks, [the Academy] will conduct a review of [its] membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in [the] 2016 class and beyond.”

The history of white art and entertainment is the history of appropriation of Black culture, from musical styles like jazz, blues and hip-hop to internet slang. Miley Cyrus has twerked her way to superstardom while it took until last June for Misty Copeland to become the first Black principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre. Many films and plays with Black leads are pigeonholed into well-worn tropes — the “slavery story,” for example, has seen a handful of reimaginings in the past decade with 12 Years a Slave, Django Unchained, Belle, Lincoln and The Birth of a Nation.

There’s clearly a diversity drought in the performing arts — one that plagues more than the professional realm. At Oberlin, ABUSUA’s extensive demands to the Board of Trustees and administration decry, among many other things, a lack of representation in the Conservatory as well as the College’s Theater and Dance departments. Whatever your feelings about the demands as a whole, there’s no denying the larger point their artistic subset, and #OscarsSoWhite, make. It’s easy to forget how vital it is for art to promote and reflect social progress. Amid national conversations about racism, increasing and acknowledging Black contributions to the arts is one of the most powerful things we can do. We should recognize, rather than erase, the accomplishments of talented artists of color. And for aspiring musicians, dancers and actors, the importance of seeing role models who look like them excel on the local and national stage can’t be understated.

We know we can do both because there are existing works that prove it. Take, for example, a new production of Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom — written and composed by Nkeiru Okoye, OC ’92 — by Cleveland and Oberlin Opera Theaters. A slave narrative that aims to eschew the pitfalls of the genre, the production not only features student performers of color, but also highlights the musical and narrative talents of a Black creative mind. By touring Black churches in the Cleveland area, it seeks to validate the experiences of the Black community while empowering and inspiring the artists of tomorrow. In a musical genre that for centuries outfitted white performers in blackface, this is a good thing.

The Oscars have the potential to inspire a diverse national audience in the same way, but it’s going to take a major restructuring — at the very least, the membership shakeup Isaacs has promised — for it to do so. That kind of action, though, is more than necessary. In the broader struggle to combat racism in the United States, we cannot forget the role that Black representation in the arts plays in creating an artistic landscape that reflects the world we live in. And we must remember that students of music, theater and dance will be looking to today’s works to figure out how to build the world they want to see tomorrow.