Celebrating Black History Month 2014: NYC Events, Books, and Movies!

Vintage, black and white photograph of a group of African American men, women, and children posing for the picture.

The concept of Black History Month dates back to 1926, when it was observed during the second week of the month, because that's when both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass were born. Though in New York City there is never a shortage of ways to celebrate and honor the African American contributions and role in all of our history and culture, it seems like a good time to point out a few Black History Month-specific events around town. I also have a few suggestions of recent books and movies that we've particularly enjoyed on the subject.

Vintage, black and white photograph of the Apollo Theater sign in Harlem, advertising the Duke Ellington Band

Black History Month Events in NYC 

The landmark Apollo Theater on 125th Street is once again transforming their entire venue to feel like those legendary Harlem nightclubs of the 1930s and '40s. Called Apollo Club Harlem, on stage will be a 90-minute performance celebrating the greats of yore with "sultry, sexy crooners, dazzling dancers, and swingin’ big bands". There will be five performances from February 20 to the 23.

Another way to celebrate Harlem's history is through one of the many ongoing walking tours of that neighborhood. With gospel tours, food tours, civil rights tours, and Harlem Renaissance tours, Harlem Heritage Tours seems like a good place to start, but check out this Free Tours By Foot site as well.

Finally, the New York Public Library's Schomburg Center on Lenox and 135th has an interesting-sounding exhibition running through June called Funky Turns 40, which explores the ways in which black cartoon characters, after decades being drawn according to racist, minstrel-era stereotypes, were suddenly "allowed" to be positive, realistic human beings in the late 1960s and '70s (think Bill Cosby's Fat Albert and crew), and how this change affected a generation of children.

Image of predominantly black females who featured in the movie "20 Feet From Stardom" about background singers.

Movies That Celebrate Black History and Culture

Last year there were several strong movies released dealing with black history and culture, including:

  • The underrated Butler, which, among other things, offers a terrific baseline history of the civil rights movement told through the eyes of one family (my teenage daughter loved it).
  • The Oscar-mega-nominated 12 Years a Slave, which is painful, vital, heartrending and, again, one of my daughter's favorites.
  • Also very good was 20 Feet From Stardom, a sometimes joyous, somewhat bittersweet portrait of the predominantly black background singers (above) heard in so many seminal songs by predominantly white artists, like Bruce Springsteen and the Rolling Stones.
  • Fruitvale Station, which tells the true-life story of a young black man killed by Oakland police.  

The book cover of "The Warmth of Other Suns", an epic story of America's Great Migration

Africian American History Non-Fiction Books

Our friends at Flavorwire put out a solid list of 10 recent non-fiction books that explore many different aspects of African American history. Included were a couple of my personal favorites from the last few years: 

  • Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King's powerful, often harrowing portrait of racial violence in Florida in the 1950s and '60s, and of Thurgood Marshall's role in the case of four young blacks falsely accused of raping a white woman.
  • Even better is Isabel Wilkerson's The Warmth of Other Suns, the amazing story of black migration in 20th century-America, as African Americans fled the south (often "illegally", and at considerable peril) and moved north and west, forever changing the history of cities like Los Angles, Chicago, and New York.

Know of any other ways to celebrate Black History Month in NYC? Let us –and other readers– know about them in the comments or join the conversation on our Facebook page

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