Q: What is on your mind during this Black History Month?
A: In her masterful chronicle “The Warmth of Other Suns,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson traces the migration of early 20th-century black Southerners who went north and west to escape hardship, poverty and mistreatment. These interstate migrants brought along enough of their former home places to turn their new domiciles into home again. The music, literature, cuisine, dance, fashion styles and visual artistry they imported influenced a cultural renaissance in places ranging from Harlem to Motown to Cincinnati to South Chicago to Los Angeles.
Over the past three decades, Central Florida has witnessed a fairly dramatic shift in the makeup of the local African-American demographic, fueled in large part by the migration of people of color from the North and West of this continent, as well as from other shores and lands. I think it behooves all of us who live in Central Florida to embrace Black History Month as prime time to explore the ways in which the presence of blackness and its cultural influence impacts and shapes the local landscape of the place we all call home.
Q: What are some prime elements of African-American culture?
A: People of African descent tend to live our version of human civilization in a more public setting than some other cultures. So the texture of our lives frequently records itself in the stories told about us by the people we meet, enjoy and befriend. Luckily for us, the oral tradition is thriving still among black Americans here in Orlando, and it continues to pass along first-hand descriptions of things that matter most to us: the dances we move to, the foods we eat, the utensils we use, the houses we live in, the deities we worship, the idiomatic forms of languages we use, the songs and poems that permeate every eventful occasion. Hearing someone give witness to their encounters with these elements will help an observer understand the business of how we as black folk navigate through this world. The search for black history always begins in conversation with living persons who hold and keep our memory.
Q: Is it true that we are losing/have lost a large part of what is African-American culture?
A: Ignoring black history was, for the longest period of time, an American pastime on local and national fronts. It took the efforts of people like the late Carter G. Woodson, and the Association For The Study Of African-American Life & History he formed, to bring attention to the need to scrupulously collect and curate information about the doings of colored persons, and about the happenings that affected them everywhere in America.
Q: How do you practice being attentive to black history, not during the month dedicated to it?
A: I run a nonprofit entity devoted to one aspect of African-American culture: the Negro spiritual song tradition. We collect and commission music arrangements based on slave-era Negro spirituals. We identify and help support young Americans who show aptitude in either vocal or piano performance of Negro spirituals. We use the Negro spiritual idiom as the subject of concerts and other programs through which the important story of the black presence in American is told and re-told. We welcome young Floridians from any and every ethnic or racial background, immersing them in the rich heritage of Negro spirituals while allowing them to serve as ambassadors for enduring values like faith, hopefulness, courage, endurance and wisdom handed down to us as the historical legacy of a people once enslaved.
The best thing about this venture might be that it was created here in Central Florida, and intends to remain Orlando-based in perpetuity. My prayer is that it will matter further along as much as it matters today.
In addition to being executive vice president of The “Negro Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation and management director for its Project GRADY-RAYAM, Rudolph C. Cleare serves on boards and committees of several Central Florida nonprofits. He’s also a member of the Executive Committee of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida.