BLACK HISTORY MONTH (this one) is about to come to a close; and like all such national Months, Weeks and Days, its importance, while respectfully noted, will be held in polite suspended animation till this time next year. This has always been the way of black cultural activities in America. There are periods of intense enthusiasm, such as the Harlem Renaissance. And there are periods of general torpor. Between these ups and downs lies the average attitude, in which an artistic and intellectual subject of major value is patted on the head like a promising nephew, yet never fully and properly acknowledged as a constant force in American life.
This month, as usual, there have been lectures, festivals, concerts, play revivals, poetry readings and so forth. More power to them. But the big event, in terms of audience, has been "Roots II," which, while down in the ratings as compared with "Roots I," has still drawn millions to the tube. On the whole, "Roots II" has been better theater, if not better television, than "Roots I" -- stronger acting and a greater variety of characters. But as a work of black history, it is as shallow as its forebear, and as a work of art, unmemorable.
Nevertheless, like "Roots I," "Roots II" has been wonderfully successful in placing the subject of black American life before a mass audience. And by so doing, it has also provided a great chance to follow it up: to show black culture at its best on a large scale, and to continue to show it, not for a Month, or for another month or two, but continuously.
There are works of black literature -- brilliant works -- that for years have cried out for effective representation in movies and on television. And this would be an excellent time for someone to try. The variety of these works would allow wide appeal. For stories of violence and terror, there is Richard Wright's "Native Son," along with a half dozen of Mr. Wright's short stories. For tales of childhood and growing up, there are James Baldwin's "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and Langston Hughes's "Not Without Laughter." For a remarkable love story, there is Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God"; for black humor, Chester Himes's "If He Hollers Let Him Go"; for history, and a great deal more, Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man." And the list goes on.
Done right, none of these works would lose a mass audience. And what they would gain for that audience is a lasting sense of the beauty and vitality of a subject without which anyone's understanding of American history is incomplete.