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State of the Arts: Inside the Blax Museum

Michelle R. Smith is one of the founders of Blax Museum, a cultural showcase that honor African American artists.
Michelle R. Smith is one of the founders of Blax Museum, a cultural showcase that honor African American artists.

Imagine having a chance to see Richard Pryor or Billie Holiday perform, to have intimate conversations with Frederick Douglass or James Baldwin. These icons in African American history and others are embodied in a cultural showcase called The Blax Museum.

On this week’s State of the Arts, WKSU's Mark Arehart talks with educator, poet and blogger Michelle R. Smith about starting the project.

Michelle R. Smith got the idea for Blax Museum, which is a combination of 'black' and 'wax,'  from a project at her daughter's grade school. 

"The students pick someone notable that they respect and admire. And then they research that person. And then they set a day where they dress up as the person. When you walk up to them they're like a sort of breathing, talking exhibit."

She saw potential to honor African American icons like Henrietta Lacks, Frederick Douglass or Ntozake Shange by getting together her artist friends for their own cultural showcase. 

"I'd had sort of a strange experience with a student who'd written an essay that made it kind of clear to me that perhaps we aren't doing as a good job as we need to teaching our students African American history."

Spotlight on Stage

The stage of the Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center at the East Cleveland Public Library will see musical tributes to singers like Holiday and Eartha Kitt, as well as the reimagination of George Clinton's own funkadelic style. 

Smith says she expects the audience to participate. "They can call and respond. They can clap, they can testify, the whole thing. It makes it fun and accessible." 

But the Blax Museum isn't limited to just spoken word or musical acts, there's comedy and a photography exhibit. 

The person channeling Gordon Parks has taken photos in the iconic artist's style and will have those on display.

Smith's own brother-in-law is playing Richard Pryor.

Since the showcase is family friendly, Smith says the comedic experience will not be as "blue" as some of Pryor's standup, but it will show the incredible lens he had into black culture.

"Richard Pryor took things that were really kind of hard and rough about being black in America and made them funny. I think also, it was a way to provoke thought without people feeling sort of attacked or tuning out."

Celebrating America's History

"I think we do need to be reminded. I think African American history month is needed just like Women's history month and Native American history month and Asian American history month and LGBTQIA+ awareness [is needed]," Smith said. 

She thinks we are at a moment in history where America's different cultures aren't being celebrated and appreciated as much as they should be. 

"All these movements, it's not to exclude anyone, but it's just to make sure we remember everyone and we are apprised of how amazing everybody is."

And to learn about great figures in American history, again. 

Blax Museum: A Tribute to Art and Excellence is Feb. 2 at the East Cleveland Public Library from 1-3 p.m.

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