Written by Phil Cerroni
By Will Jukes
The Irving Black Arts Council hosted its annual celebration of Black History Month at the Irving Arts Center on Feb. 24. The national theme of this year's Black History Month, “Freedom & Equality,” was celebrated with a reception and a schedule of events that included an unveiling by Postmaster Rodney Malone of a new stamp featuring Rosa Parks and a presentation on 42, a new movie about the life of Jackie Robinson starring Chadwick Boseman and Harrison Ford, set to be released April 12.
The main portion of the event, however, focused on local art and artists, with a gallery exhibit featuring works contributed by local artists and a new play from a local playwright. The play, titled Grandma, I Don't Believe It, follows a woman who tries to teach her skeptical grandson and his best friend about the struggles of slavery, segregation, and the civil rights movement. The playwright, Cynthia Reid Wills, said she was inspired by her own difficulty communicating African American history to her grandchildren.
“Because I'm a grandmother, when I tell my grandchildren things that happened, even in my past, not so much as far back as slavery, they say 'Grandma, I don't believe it!' I felt like that was something I could at least teach the audience of teenagers a lot of young people here today, that would not believe what went on in the past,” said Wills. An Irving Black Arts Council member, the author of two books and several plays, Wills is also a local business owner.
“The whole goal is to promote African American culture here,” said LaNita Johnson, Vice President of the Irving Black Arts Council.
“Every once in a while an artist might drive in from San Antonio or Houston,” she said, referring to the gallery exhibit titled “Diaspora: From the Motherland to the Homeland,” which took a year to plan and featured sculpture, painting and photography, with an emphasis on the work from artists in the community. But she also emphasized the diversity of the event, which included work from Caucasian artist and UNT professor Murielle White.
“What we're trying to do here in partnership with the city is celebrate the diversity of the city. Irving is probably one of the most diverse communities in the Metroplex,” Johnson said.
Others see room to expand Black History Month's role in the broader community.
“It only just scratches the surface, in terms of the educational process in the entire community,” said Maurice Walker, a member of the community.
The event drew a larger crowd than in the past.
“We did have an overflowing crowd. This auditorium seats probably 200 people, and it was standing room only,” Johnson said.
Colbin Gibson, a representative for the Irving Black Arts Council, attributes it to changing the date.
“It's using a Sunday model. In the past we've used an evening model during the week,” Gibson said. He also suggested that youth involvement played a role. “It's always impactful when you have diverse age groups involved in the program, especially young kids. Parents are going to come. So you've got parents, you get young people, and we want that.”
Johnson offered several theories, but ultimately was happy to see the event succeed.
“I know they have a choice for when to celebrate, I'm just happy they chose this event to celebrate,” she said.