Black West' just doesn't go far enough


February 09, 1991|By Steve McKerrow

Ironically, the strength of having observances of something such as February's Black History Month can sometimes also be a weakness. And that point is illustrated tonight by a half-hour documentary airing on WBAL-Channel 11.

Early on in "The Black West" (at 7:30 p.m.), the latest in a weekly series of Black History Month specials, co-host Ruby Dee talks about the many legends of the Wild West and intones, "they were there" -- meaning black cowboys, Gold Rush miners, sodbusters and gunslingers.

It is true the presence of minorities in American history has not been explored well in mainstream education, at least until recent years. But this 1985 show asserts, perhaps too heavy-handedly, that "self-serving writers and historians tried to erase" these stories from our cultural past.

So programs documenting the black experience, as well as the monthlong observances of other kinds, can help overcome the oversights.

Unfortunately, "The Black West" (co-hosted by Ossie Davis) does not go very far beyond merely proving the black presence way out West.

The point is illustrated by innumerable old photographs, but little sense of substance is given to those faces of color in the grainy black-and-white pictures.

Several black historians make comment, but every time the show turns up a nugget of fascinating information it moves on too swiftly to another era.

For instance, the show notes the early Spanish explorers and settlers in the New World brought with them more than 10,000 African laborers, well before America adopted slavery as an institution. But that is all we learn, when it would be interesting to pursue the point. What happened to those early Africans?

Similarly, there are pictures of a black Pony Express rider, miners, covered-wagon settlers, Civil War soldiers and even some discussion of the brief post-Civil War movement to make Oklahoma an all-black state. Yet the only segment in which we hear actual names of people comes with the listing of such outlaws as George Dalton, Cherokee Bill, Deadwood Dick, Mary Fields and Ben Hodges.

Obviously, a half-hour show is limited in its scope and this one chose to be more overview than anything else. Unfortunately, it has the feel of that dates-and-places, learn-by-rote approach to the teaching of all history which students too often tune out.


BLACK HISTORY CONTINUED -- Here are some other broadcast specials in observance of Black History Month:

* Channel 11 programs, titled under the umbrella "A Remarkable Journey," include two more 7:30 p.m. Saturday shows, one of which further addresses a portion of the show noted above. "To See the Glory" on Feb. 16 covers the black Civil War experience, and "Chronicles of Protest" on Feb. 23 highlights the history of black newspapers.

In addition, "Black History 1990" is an hourlong special scheduled at 10:30 a.m. Feb. 17.

* WMAR-Channel 2 is airing a production of the winning entry of its Ninth Annual Drama Competition for playwrights at 7 p.m. Feb. 23.

The show, produced by the station with the Arena Players, is "A Relative Stranger," written by Monalisa DeGross and set in 1955 Baltimore.

* On WJZ-Channel 13, weekend co-anchor Sandra Pinckney has begun a series profiling minority-owned businesses in Maryland, which can be seen during the station's 6 p.m. nightly newscast on Tuesdays through Feb. 26.

And co-anchor Denise Koch, who accompanied a cross-cultural group of youngsters who traveled last summer to Israel and Senegal in Africa, hosts "In Africa," a half-hour report on the project, tentatively scheduled to air Feb. 28.

* Again this year WBFF-Channel 45 sponsored an essay contest for city school students, and 28 winners in the "Champions of Courage" project have been taped reading excerpts of their essays about people in their lives who embody the ideals of the Rev. Martin Luther King. The spots can be seen multiple times daily through the end of the month.

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