Heritage, talent at the forefront
What do Mary Ann Shadd, Nathaniel Dett, Portia White, and Elijah McCoy have in common? Discovering that these famous Canadians who have made a difference were once young, gifted and black is interesting and illuminating to most people. But if you’re a young black kid yourself, just starting out, this knowledge could inspire you to reach, just a little higher, for the stars.
This is why the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall was the first and only venue considered for what has become an annual Montreal celebration kicking off Black History Month. Young, Gifted and Black showcases the talents of black youth through drama, music, dance, and spoken word.
The vision for the event sprang from tragedy. In 2003, the shooting deaths of four young men shook Montreal’s black community. As a community organizer who works with kids “from all over,” George was acquainted with three of the four young men and says they were basically good kids. “It was a feeling of desperation,” George recalls, explaining how he felt the need to balance the negative news coverage with the reality of many kids he knew.
“I said: ‘OK, what about the positive things?’ There are so many young kids doing wonderful things.”
Inspiration came in the form of a song, Donny Hathaway’s rendition of Young, Gifted and Black, as George was sitting in his car listening to the radio.
“It was an emotional response. I booked the hall right away. By December, I was in a panic.” The responsibility and expenditure created some anxiety, which George shared with Rev. Darryl Gray, then minister of Union United Church.
“At this point, it was an individual initiative. I went to Rev. Gray and expressed my anxiety. He said: ‘Well, you have to do the show.’ ”
The show did, and continues to go on, with new and returning performers of all backgrounds bringing Montrealers a message of cultural diversity and non-violence.
“This year, the proceeds were to go to DESTA, a black youth network that provides education,” George says. “But what happened in Haiti was unimaginable. We spoke and felt that we’d really like to support that cause 100 per cent.”
“We give them a theme. In the past it was ‘African Kings and Queens.’ This year, it’s ‘My African Roots.’ The performance must speak to the theme.” The kids may dedicate their interpretation to someone they admire in the context of black history or create an original piece, explaining what their performance means to them. The process takes artist and audience on a journey of discovery into glorious ancient Africa.
“You start thinking about great African empires – all of this predates current history as taught in school. I believe it’s everybody’s history, because science says the cradle of humankind is in Africa.”
While slavery is acknowledged as something to be transcended, George says the scope of black history is far greater: “Black history does not start with slavery. Black History Month is an attempt to undo hundreds of years of oppression and lost knowledge of the black community and its contribution to society. The reason you have Black History Month is the same reason you have Young, Gifted and Black. The show is uplifting, like a breath of fresh air.”
Young, Gifted and Black starts at 8pm, February 6, at The Oscar Peterson Concert Hall, 7141 Sherbrooke W. Tickets: 514 848-4848 or 514 790-1245.