Legendary talent, Ben Vereen is not a happy man these days, despite outward appearances. The state of dissatisfaction was apparent during his presentation at Harlem’s City College of New York Aaron Davis Hall. Before an enthusiastic crowd he delivered a lecture on race, politics, and the status of African-Americans in Hollywood. It is this latter issue which revealed his frustrations aimed at reality television, that he declares is the new blackface minstrelsy.
“Reality TV is the new blackface and [it is] making us look like buffoons,” he says. “Ever since [President Barack] Obama was elected, we been getting less and less roles. [Hollywood] will continue to do that if we don’t say anything. We do not stand behind our artists who are there for us to express our truths.”
Whenever there is any discussion on the topic of people of color in Hollywood, the names Tyler Perry and Spike Lee are bound to emerge. Despite their rivalry, Vereen believes that the two must make amends in order to create richer opportunities in Hollywood for those of color. “I want to say, Spike take the brother [Perry] aside. Don’t go to the press. Support the brother and encourage him to do more artistic work in our vein that we need done.”
If more color is what Vereen is seeking, perhaps he would have appreciated Harlem’s newest art salon, Knox Gallery, for their “Women of Colours” exhibition. The installation, curated by Omo Misha, featured the intriguing works of Grace Williams, Ruth L. Leal and six other female artists exploring themes of history, culture and self-image. During the exhibition’s closing reception, the gallery’s creative director, Al Johnson explained his vision for Knox. “What we are trying to do is introduce the Harlem community to the best of our culture,” he states. “We want to cater to our valued collectors and make them feel comfortable to experience art as a life force without interference.” Johnson also revealed that he received major political endorsement for his painting of groundbreaking politician Shirley Chisholm, to become the official U.S. postage stamp in honor of her, set to debut by 2013.
Chisholm wasn’t just a political force, she was also a style icon known for big hair and bold graphic prints. And, it was style that was on the minds of Harlemites during the latest Harlem’s Fashion Row “Conversations,” event. at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Founder and CEO of Harlem’s Fashion Row, Brandice Henderson engaged in a discussion with Steven Kolb, CEO of Council of Fashion Designers of America. Throughout the talk, there was a missed opportunity to challenge Kolb regarding the lack of diversity in the CFDA membership and fashion community overall. Finally, when he did address the issue, he stated, “We are 400 designers and a pretty white organization. It’s obvious, but not intentional. Anybody can become part of the CFDA. It’s having perseverance, believing in yourself, and presenting yourself. That’s the success of any designer, no matter what or whom.”
While Kolb’s statement possesses truth, the limited representation of Harlemites and people of color in fashion and various other industries deserves a more thorough analysis. If Vereen was in attendance, he might have left with an even deeper frown on his face.
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This article is courtesy of our partner The Harlem Arts Alliance