While Black History Month has been celebrated nationwide since 1976, the tradition of setting aside time in the month of February to learn about the African American journey began half a century earlier right here in Chicago. It was started in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson, who became known as “The Father of Black History.” The Windy City counts Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Black Haitian trader, as one of its founding fathers, and during the 20th century, Chicago provided fertile soil for African American arts and culture while also serving as a brutal reminder of the nation’s racist impulses.
This February, residents of the South Loop apartments at NEMA Chicago can celebrate Black History Month with the help of this handy list of films and books that explore the Black experience in America.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962) is a powerful depiction of Black life under Jim Crow, the series of racial codes that segregated much of America and reduced Black people to second-class citizens. The story, about a lawyer (Gregory Peck) who defends a Black man falsely accused of a crime, and almost sure to be railroaded by a prejudiced justice system, is, sadly, still as relevant today as it was when the film debuted nearly 60 years ago.
Released in 2015, the documentary “A Ballerina’s Tale” brings Misty Copeland’s inspiring story to the screen. Copeland, the first African American woman to be made principal dancer at the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, fought through a career-threatening injury to achieve her historic promotion. Filmmaker Nelson George shows her to be a humble, composed artist who never lets setbacks get in the way of her dreams.
Recent biopics “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (2013) and “Hidden Figures” (2016) shine a light on Black Americans whose stories had been suppressed or simply unsung for decades — people who pushed society forward while themselves being unfairly held back. The Oscar-winning film “Selma” (2014) takes a ground-level look at the struggle to right societal wrongs, showing the brutal reality of fighting against history.
In addition to the movies, here are a few books to share with young readers to help get them into the Black History Month mindset. The Caldecott Medal-winning book “Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad,” by Ellen Levine, brings home the cruelty of family separation that was practiced in the Antebellum South with the story of a young slave boy who escapes to freedom. “The Other Side,” by Jacqueline Woodson, explores life in the segregated South from the perspective of a Black girl and her white friend. These books, along with “Whoever You Are,” by Mem Fox; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” by Jeanette Winter; and “Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” by Doreen Rappaport; are great places to start an intergenerational conversation about how Black history truly is American history.