Living out black history

Every day I walk, talk and breathe black history. As a black woman, I take pride in living each day in memory of those who have paved the way for people of color. I’m used to seeing Black History Month celebrations honoring the same—yet amazing—people who made huge strides throughout American history: Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X. Those lives definitely deserve to be recognized, but so do all of the other black people who contributed to our history. That is why I was elated when I found out the Crocker Art Museum is celebrating Black History Month through a film and discussion series that examines the representation of black lives on film.

“Black history ain’t just for black folks,” says one of the curators, Vincent Dee Miles. “We are all American, and it’s all of our history.”

I arrive to the screening of Cooley High in time to scope out the theater and those in attendance. A diverse mixture of Sac State students, retired professors and black-culture enthusiasts filled the rows of seats. Before the showing got underway, the hosts Miles—director of Cine Soul, an African-American film festival—and Stacey Shelnut-Hendrick, director of education at the Crocker, introduced the film.

“I used to watch Fast Times at Ridgemont High and The Breakfast Club and would wonder what it’d look like to have a black depiction of those movies that was that revered and loved,” Miles says. That’s how he chose to show the film I watched.

Cooley High was released in 1975 but set in 1964 Chicago at the infamous Cabrini-Green housing projects. The comedy-drama follows the daily lives of high school seniors Cochise and Preach as they skip class, go to parties, smoke a little weed and try to get girls at any point in between. Although the antics of high school life resemble the movie’s white counterparts—like Fast Times at Ridgemont High—the struggles specific to black life separate them. Scenes of the neighborhood often show many people living in one home, prostitutes on the corners—who become normalized in daily life—and constant fights breaking out over otherwise resolvable issues.

Overall, it’s the story of a smart black boy with major potential who always gets into trouble and doesn’t take life seriously, raised by a single mother who has three kids and works three jobs. At a loss of how to find himself as a man, Preach struggles to connect with strong black men wherever he can. Sound familiar? This film shows blaxploitation at its finest, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Cooley High puts the lives of black youth into perspective within its era, which is sadly still relevant today. In one scene, a teacher asks Preach what he wants for his future.

Preach answers, “I wanna live forever.”

He was speaking for all black youth who are limited in this life. As I walked out, I thought to myself, “Damn … I want to live forever, too.”