The Golden Globes, Grammys, Screen Actors’ Guild, and the Academy Awards, signal a shift between the winter and spring seasons. Yet, in terms of skin complexion, for the most part, the color of nominees and audiences at the largest awards shows is White. Last week, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrated its Centennial year and its 40th Image Awards Program, begun in 1969. What a show! The “Who’s Who” of Black entertainment gathered in sunny (well, not-so-sunny) California to recognize individuals who project positive images for Black people in the entertainment industry. In total, awards were given in 53 categories within the field of motion picture, television, music, and literature. I mused: How did the Image Awards arise? My intellectual curiosity and emotions routed me to research.
Prior to 1969, the Academy Awards, American Music Awards, and the Emmy’s never had more than 5 percent of the nominees being a person of color. Equally insulting was the low percentage, if at all, of behind-scenes-positions in the entire entertainment industry. In fact, the NAACP’s monitoring of Black representation in Hollywood dates back to 1915 when Dr. W.E.B. Dubois’ protested against the ragingly racist movie, “Birth of a Nation”, by G.W. Griffith.
The film was set during the Reconstruction Era following the American Civil War and depicted African-Americans as politically corrupt and beastly savages who, if left free of control by the Ku Klux Klan, would create a “mongrel” race by raping White women. In 1916, the movie was shamefully shown in the White House by then President Woodrow Wilson.
The NAACP immediately challenged the images of Black portrayed by Hollywood directors. After the movie “Birth of a Nation” was born a renewed resistance to racist writers in the movie and television industry.
In 1969, Black awards shows were established with the NAACP’s Image Awards. Since then, The Friends of the Black Oscars Foundation Tree of Life Awards (1980), The Turner Broadcasting Trumpet Awards (1993), The Black Leadership Forum Lamplighter Awards (1994), The BET Music Awards (2000), and The BET Honors (2008) have grown in stature as opportunities for Black talent to gain hard-earned, but generally-overlooked recognition.
The Tree of Life Awards were founded by leading African-Americans in Hollywood (Albert Nellum, Maya Angelou, Sidney Poitier, Debbie Allen, and others) to bestow awards to African Americans left out by the Academy Awards. The Lamplighter Awards were established to recognize individuals and institutions whose policies—public or private—positively impact Black people.
The Trumpet Awards were launched to herald the accomplishments of Black Americans who have succeeded against immense odds. The BET Music Awards buoyed Black recording artists to the radiance of recognition. Most recently, the BET Honors have for the past two years honored African- Americans in the areas of business, social justice, philanthropy and entertainment.
In recent years, the dearth of darkness in the ivory tower of Hollywood has persisted with some (but not much) progress in pigmentation of movie personnel. In fact, NAACP and Rainbow PUSH Coalition called for pickets of the Academy Awards to demonstrate the absence of African- Americans in Hollywood.
As Reverend Jesse Jackson, Sr. often says—and I agree—“there is no talent gap in America between Black and White, only an opportunity gap.” In many respects, African-American individuals and institutions are often forced to create their own opportunity in an unjust and imperfect world.
So be it. Just as Black History Month was established by Dr. Carter G. Woodson as “Negro History Week” in 1926 due to the omission of Black history in “American History”, Black awards shows have helped to fill the void of equal opportunity in the American society.
Yet, in the absence of “main stream” recognition, the Black institutions that have established ethnically diverse awards shows should be rewarded for providing awareness to all people of talent who would otherwise remain behind the curtain of creativity. Such institutions have moved the United States of America closer to a more perfect union.
Gary L. Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum