This week's column kicks off with a confession: I'm Caucasian.
Shocking, I know. There's more: I'm a male, middle-class, college-educated, socially liberal secularized Jew from the Northeast. That makes me a member of the most overrepresented demographic imaginable, with mainstream media visibility vastly exceeding our actual numbers. It's almost impossible to watch TV without seeing someone who looks and sounds like I do (especially if a Woody Allen/Larry David marathon is on), and I'm often barely aware of the unspoken expectation that most entertainment I encounter will be engineered with my socioeconomic situation in mind.
But what if I had to go out of my way to find performances that portray my community? What if every show I saw was filtered through a window of wondering where I appear in the picture? What if the city's established creative forces unconsciously ignored my ethnicity's artistic output? In other words, what if I were an African-American in the arts in Orlando?
Before the bellowing starts, I'm not implying that Orlando Weekly or I am as pale as a Palin rally. On the contrary, we emphasize diversity in our operation, and outside of OW, I'm proud that my personal theater productions have a reputation for casting Orlando's best actors regardless of race (including Dennis Neal, Trenell Mooring and Avis Marie-Barnes). But the fact I've succumb to "my best buds are black" patter only points up the problem: From minstrel shows through MTV, we're accustomed to African-American culture (along with that of other nationalities) being appropriated and exploited by mass media. Even in an urban-based publication like ours, there's not much coverage of cultural events created by and for the black community because they tend to be underpromoted.
So what sparked my sociological soul-searching? I was jostled by Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the June 19, 1865, a day that signifies the guarantee of freedom to former slaves in the United States. History tells us that's the day Union general Gordon Granger and his troops arrived in Galveston, Texas, to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation, which President Lincoln had passed 30 months prior. The day has been marked here and around the nation for decades, but this is the first year that the Wells'Built Museum in Parramore is hosting a multiday tribute that winds up with an all-day concert and health fare in Lake Eola Park on Saturday, June 19.
The Wells'Built Museum, sitting at 511 W. South St., was the former home of the Wellsbilt Hotel, a shelter during the 1930s-1950s to "chitlin' circuit" stars the likes of Count Basie and Billie Holiday; it was owned by influential African-American physician Dr. William Monroe Wells. These days, the museum operates under the Association to Preserve African American Society, History and Tradition Inc., the group that organized Florida's Juneteenth Music Festival. The aim is to "re-create the music, dance, food, oratory, and the theatrical performances that were typical of those that brought African American performers to segregated taverns, theatres, cabarets and nightspots throughout America."
As the WB museum's executive director Derrick Gatlin told OW's Lindy T. Shepherd, it's true to African-American culture to pay homage to the church first. So on Saturday (June 12), I stopped by the festival opener, "Juneteenth Gospel's Best" at St. John's Missionary Baptist Church. The night featured an American Idol-esque singing competition for ages 18-24, with a panel of celebrity judges that included Thomas McClary of the Commodores. As I approached, scores of street-side cars indicated a strong turnout. Unfortunately, I arrived too late to hear headliner LaRue Howard. Luckily, it turns out my wife once taught school with the Dove Award—winning Faith World minister, so I got to give a shout out to the vivacious vocalist over the church's blistering sound system.
Speaking of setups, the dazzling laser-light display was as impressive as the passionate performances — for sure this was a different kind of worship service. While the gospel lyrics were righteously religious, the beats would batter the flesh as well as any you'll find on R&B radio. So what if the style wasn't the sh'ma I'm accustomed to — I can spot spiritual sincerity no matter the surface color. Still, I observed my share of curiosities: the host's gargantuan green-and-gold pseudo-African garb and the sprinting exodus immediately after the winner "$3,000 in cash and prizes" was announced.
I'm not saying I was the only white guy there, but the other two were in the front pew wearing suits — I think they were reps from some of the many sponsors that were thanked talk show—style after the invocation. Here's what's left on the Juneteenth program; all events are free and at the museum unless noted; 407-245-7535; www.floridajuneteenth.com.
Literary Review with It was never about a hot dog and a Coke! author Rodney Lawrence Hurst Sr. (6 p.m.-9 p.m. Wednesday)
Spoken Word with open-mic artists welcomed. (7 p.m.-9 p.m. Thursday)
Music Review with Kendra Legare-Jackson and Tevin Michael. (7 p.m.-10 p.m. Friday)
Music Festival starring Con Funk Shun and Lakeside, with Erly Thornton and Brenda White & the White Boys. (10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday at Walt Disney Amphitheater at Lake Eola Park)firstname.lastname@example.org