As a New Haven schoolkid, Katro Storm always had a problem with Black History Month. He saw nothing wrong with celebrating MLK or Malcolm X or watching Alex Haley’s Roots one more time on TV. But what about the rest of black culture? And why February, the shortest month of the year?
Roll the pages of the calendar forward a couple of decades, and Storm has solved his problem with A Tribute to Langston Hughes.
Storm has curated the exhibition at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven on Audubon Street. It had an official opening reception this past Friday night (though it has hung on the walls for weeks); it runs through April 5. Katro has crammed in the extra March days to make up for all the short-changed Februaries. And on March 7 there is a concomitant special performance of Langston Hughes’ writings at Lyric Hall in Westville.
Not every artist has the eye, disposition, and generosity of spirit to function as a curator. Storm does. An up-and-coming artist and muralist in his own right, Storm has also already curated several shows around town. (Click here and here to read stories about previous exhibitions, ranging from visual representations of sound to the Negro Baseball Leagues.)
At Friday night’s opening reception, 100 crammed into the corridor and alcoves of the second floor gallery. Here Storm has brought together the large oil pastel portraits of black Americans by Renaldo Davidson, the spoken word performance of Hughes’ poems and stories by Anthony Thompson [also known as Ade], and the videography of NJ Martin, who prowled the cozy precincts and recording it all for the March 7 Lyric Hall reprise.
Click on the play arrow to hear a section of Thompson reading “Uhru,” Langston Hughes’ poem celebrating the nations of Africa throwing off the shackles of colonialism and becoming independent in the 1950s and 1960s.
Davidson and Thompson have been collaborating on a multimedia performance piece, “Langston Hughes’s Jesse B. Simple Alive in Harlem,” portions of which they will bring to Lyric Hall on March 7, along with the videography of N.J. Martin.
As he greeted visitors to the show on Friday, Storm said his take on a Black History Month exhibition is not so much “move over, MLK and Malcolm.” It’s more like: Let’s add comedian Redd Foxx and dozens of other African-American figures, lesser known but arguably as influential, such as Carter G. Woodson.
Storm said that one of the revelations of curating the show has been to learn that Woodson, a Harvard-trained academic, mentored Langston Hughes, a luminary of the Harlem Renaissance.
Woodson also happens to be the second African-American ever to receive a Ph.D from Harvard, according to Anthony Thompson, who performed Hughes’ poetry at the event. (The first to receive a Ph.D was W.E. B. DuBois, he said.)
Woodson pioneered black history “weeks” and created other “platforms” to make black culture better known not only to African-Americans but also to American society at large. He is in short the godfather of Black History Month, said Thompson.
Since Feb. 1 also happens to be Langston Hughes’ birthday, it made sense to focus the exhibition on him, Storm said.
The papers of Langston Hughes rest not more than a quarter mile away from the exhibition at the Beinecke Library.
Yale University’s Michael Morand pointed out that the Beinecke mounted a major exhibition on Hughes in 2002, the occasion of his centennial birthday.
The challenge for Storm, who has previously curated visual art-only exhibitions, is that A Tribute to Langston Hughes has three genres on display. Or as Storm put it, it’s “multi-layered.”
At last Friday’s event, Thompson powerfully channeled the poems about lynching and African heritage of Hughes, and juxtaposed them with the folk yarns of Jesse B. Simple, the fictional man-about-Harlem who is a signature creation of Hughes.
As he looked around the crowded space, with people, both white and black, old and young, peeping over partitions to watch the show, Storm said, “I’m a little nervous.”
He needn’t have been. As to his early concerns about Black History Month, he now embraces it: “It’s American history. Your birthday may come only once a year, but it’s important to celebrate it.”