Some personal comments
on Black History Month
A play, a song, a movie and a documentary that honour the theme
By Byron Toben
With the end of February, we have witnessed another Black History Month. I would like to add a few of my personal comments on a play, a song, a movie and a digital documentary.
But first, a brief history of the month:
- 1926 – Historian Carter G. Woodson began a precursor, Negro History Week, for the second week of February, chosen to include the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. The emphasis is on inclusion in public school teaching.
- 1970 – Kent State University adopted a Black History Month, which spread widely across the United States. In 1976, President Ford recognized the month as part of the U.S. bicentennial.
- 1987 – The United Kingdom acknowledges Black History Month as part of African Jubilee Year, albeit in October.
- 1995 – The Canadian House of Commons recognizes February as Black History Month. The Senate does likewise in 2008.
- 2010 – In Ireland, Black History Month is initiated in Cork, a 19th-century abolition centre.
As mentioned above, here are a few of my comments:
I had always admired Edward Albee’s one-act play, The Death of Bessie Smith, which premiered in Berlin in 1960, then Off-Broadway in 1961 and Broadway in 1968. Bessie, a popular singer in the 1920s and 1930s, had fallen on hard times and was about to make a comeback when she was injured in an auto accident and bled to death while being driven back to New York from Mississippi,
In Albee’s play, she was refused help in a nearby all-white hospital (later refuted by documentary evidence that she died in an African American hospital). But in Albee’s script, based on an article in a jazz paper, he interposes a racist white intern chatting with the nurses, who quote a doggerel of the times: “What does (President) Franklin Roosevelt say to wife Eleanor each night? You kiss the N*****s and I’ll kiss the Jews, and we’ll both stay in the White House as long as we choose.”
Ok, a bit of poetic license, but it could well have happened. Prejudice against Blacks and Jews has long co-existed and created sympathies between the two groups.
In 1990, Time Magazine selected Strange Fruit as The Song of the Century. Initially popularized by the iconic singer Billie Holliday and since covered by many other talents. It was written by Abel Meeropol, a graduate of Bronx De Witt Clinton High School and later a teacher there for 17 years. He was investigated and asked if he had been paid by the Soviet Union to write the words – they are powerful, inspired by lynching photographs.
Southern Trees Bear a Strange Fruit
Blood On The Leaves and Blood on the Root
Black Bodies Swinging in The Southern Breeze
Strange Fruit Hanging From The Poplar Trees…
Ms. Holliday was also persecuted for singing this song as portrayed in the movie just released on the last day of Black History Month 2021 on Hulu, The United States vs. Billie Holliday.
On February 24, B’nai Brith Canada posted an instructive documentary, Black Jewish Alliances – Past and Present. Martin Luther King, the Selma March, and Canadian Olivia Desmond (now on the Canadian $10 bill) are all here. Watch below.
Byron Toben, a past president of The Montreal Press Club, has been WestmountMag.ca’s theatre reviewer since July 2015. Previously, he wrote for since terminated web sites Rover Arts and Charlebois Post, print weekly The Downtowner and print monthly The Senior Times. He also is an expert consultant on U.S. work permits for Canadians.