‘Black athlete’ script misses Academy Awards diversity point

In this Nov. 14, 2014 file photo, Chris Rock accepts the Hollywood comedy film award on stage at the Hollywood Film Awards at the Palladium in Los Angeles. The largest black audience for the Academy Awards over the last dozen years came in 2005, when Rock was host and Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman won the top male acting awards. Rock will be back as host this year, on Feb. 28, 2016, but it's an open question how many black viewers will be tuning in. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

I’ve noted — with both interest and amusement — some recent letters to the editor that criticized the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for planning to diversify its membership because of an absence of black nominees for this year’s Oscar Awards.

Most of those writers argued that no similar demands for diversity have been made when it comes to overwhelmingly black collegiate or professional athletic teams and that — as is true in athletics — “ability” matters.

I agree with those writers — ability does matter. I also believe that’s why their argument is ill-conceived, woefully misinformed and more than a bit driven by conscious or unconscious racial stereotypes.

Black History Month is a wonderful time to say so.

Black History Month is an expansion of the Negro History Week initiated by the historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Woodson established Negro History Week to highlight the multifaceted — and often overlooked — abilities and achievements of people of color in every area, profession and vocation of American life.

He chose the week embracing February 12, which includes the birthdays of President — and politically strategic emancipator — Abraham Lincoln, abolitionist Frederick Douglass and Bishop Richard Allen, the founder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

What was Negro History Week officially expanded to become Black History Month in 1976 — the bicentennial year of our nation — and was hailed by Republican President Gerald Ford as a time to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”

The celebration of Black History Month epitomizes why those who use the “athletic achievement” argument to say that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should not pursue diversity are dead wrong and culturally ignorant. By their apparent reckoning, athletic achievement is the primary — and perhaps only — evidence of black accomplishment and black folk should otherwise, as the saying goes, “stay in their lane.”

Black achievement is woven into the broad fabric of America, but is still as often unrecognized as is the fact that slave artisans and craftsmen built most of Charleston’s historic buildings. That “incomplete history” and lingering discrimination are why many black institutions came into being.

Black churches grew and flourished when black worshipers were either barred from or restricted in predominately white churches.

Black Entertainment Television was created in a time when MTV chose to not feature music videos from able and talented black performing artists. The National Medical and Bar Associations were formed when the American Medical and Bar Associations would not accept black members, in spite of their credentials and ability.

I celebrate all of those entities, which are old enough and well established enough to continue to survive and thrive, but I also celebrate recent decisions by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and like-minded organizations to diversify their membership, because black folk are more than talented athletes and because the level of still existent racial prejudice still shows in areas like the performing arts.

The Academy took the right step because many recent critically acclaimed movies with able black actors in leading roles and black directors received no Oscar nominations.

The Academy took the right step because when it comes to some movies — especially those with Biblical and East African themes — white actors are cast in leading roles and able actors of visibly African descent get minor roles as “slave extras.”

Those who make the “black athlete” argument simply underscore the miles that we still have to cover to achieve true diversity and cultural understanding and, contrary to what they say, the Academy’s diversity initiative is a positive step to correct old — and still existent — slights and misconceptions.

I encourage those who embrace the “black athlete” argument to justify their racial misconceptions to do a little soul searching and objective research and recognize the gap that still exists when it comes to perceptions of race, ability and respectability in America.

My guess is that some of them probably criticized Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton for being too “in your face,” conceited and insulting to his opponents in his “touchdown celebrations,” but will vote for Donald Trump — who makes Newton seem calm, cool, collected and restrained!

The Rev. Joseph A. Darby is presiding elder of the Beaufort District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and first vice-president of the Charleston Branch NAACP.