|from the columnists.com
America lost perhaps its most famous child star in cinematic history when Shirley Temple Black passed away last week. Shirley Temple rose to fame in the 1930s at the height of the Great Depression and entertained audiences with her charm and smile. But it was her relationship with Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson that was unique to not only Hollywood, but America at that time as well.
Bill Robinson, better known by his stage name of ‘Bojangles,’ was a well known tap dancer in the early 20th Century. He played before white and black audiences alike, while making a living literally on his feet. When he first began working with Shirley Temple, ‘Bojangles’ was already in his 50s and had been a legendary tap dancer at that point. The pairing between ‘Bojangles’ and Shirley Temple would not be without its critics however.
Though ‘Bojangles’ and Shirley Temple shined well together on the big screen, their roles were anything but equal. ‘Bojangles’ — true to the form of how Hollywood viewed blacks at the time — often got stuck playing Shirley Temple’s butler. His singing and dancing may invoke some unkind parallels to the stereotypical roles another famous black actor at the time, Stepin’ Fetchit, had to play, but it’s worth remembering that these guys were at least getting work. In 2001, Gregory Hines would go on to portray ‘Bojangles’ in a movie by the same name. Below is the famous stairwell dance scene between Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson and Shirley Temple. R.I.P. to both.
It’s often a joke that Black History Month takes place during the shortest month of the year. However, the lack of history — especially cinematic history of African Americans — taught in schools is no laughing matter. This lack of teaching can often be reflected in embarrassing displays of ignorance, despite the best intentions.
I remember one night during my sophomore year of college heading to the video section of the on campus library to rent a movie for a class project. It was February and so there were a few things going on in regards to Black History Month. As I’m walking towards the video department, I notice a display case with a sign above it that reads something along the lines of “Black History Month Films.” I took a peek at what films were in the display case and after seeing the selection of movies, I was ready to slap somebody. Stepin’ Fetchit, “Gone With the Wind,” “The Amos n’ Andy Show,” and, drum roll please . . . “Booty Call.” These were the names and films chosen to ‘honor’ Black History Month.
After being shocked and disappointed at the displayed movies, I wrote a letter to one of the people in charge at the library and he responded basically saying that he apologizes and honestly didn’t realize the offensive nature of the films displayed. This begs the question, why wasn’t he aware that these films might be controversial, and how come not one person rose their hand and suggested that perhaps featuring “Booty Call” for a Black History Month display was not the smartest of ideas?
Ultimately, I don’t believe there was any malicious intent involved with the choice of movies displayed, but there was a heavy dose of ignorance present. If these types of mistakes can happen at an institution of higher learning, then what does that say about the rest of our society? Not enough people know about Dorothy Dandridge, or the man known as the godfather of black cinema — Oscar Micheaux. Everybody’s heard of “Shaft,” but what about the man who directed it? Even the work of more current people like Spike Lee, Kasi Lemmons, and Julie Dash, could have been featured in that display case, but weren’t. What does this all mean? That when it comes to black history, if we really want to begin to understand the stories of more than 400 years in this country, 28 days in February is only the beginning of what should be a 365 day process.