February 18, 1999 Vol . 14, No. 4
By Carol Thorbes
Black history month may mean something personal to only a few at SFU, but its celebration is embraced and enjoyed by many of every creed and colour. Earlier this month, the dance troupe, Bale Tropicalia and Jeni LeGon (right, with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson in the 1030s movie Hooray for Love) a living legend in black culture and history performed for an enthusiastic audience at the SFU theatre.
Albert St. Albert Smith, an instructor at SFU's school for the contemporary arts, is the driving force behind the annual celebration of black history month on campus. For him and a handful of students who make up Western Canada's only Association of Students of African Descent on a university campus, the celebration of black history and culture during February is a personal experience.
"I can remember my father telling me about my grandfather how the Ku Klux Klan took away his sawmill in Louisiana and gave him 24 hours to get out of town. My father is in his 80s now, but, for him, the pain is still there," recalls Smith, who was born in California of African and Seminole heritage. A dancer and musician by training, Smith notes, "The arts is one of the key ways to eliminate racism and bigotry and bring people together, regardless of their heritage or social class."
Founded in 1926 by Carter Woodson, a renowned U.S. black scholar, black history month is dedicated to publicizing the achievements of blacks in an effort to foster self-esteem and eliminate prejudice. "It is through reviewing the work of legendary performers like Jeni LeGon that B.C.'s black community can better piece together the puzzle of its past and appreciate its great moments in history," observes Smith.
A fan of LeGon's work, Smith invited the multi-talented performer to share with the SFU community stories and film clips illustrating her star-studded career.
LeGon loves talking about her glory days, a period which spanned seven decades. One of Hollywood's first black film stars of the 1930s, LeGon sang, danced, choreographed, acted and taught dance. At age 82, she is still performing. Born in Chicago, LeGon was a chorine with the Count Basie Orchestra, took centre stage with Fats Waller, Cab Calloway and Bill Bojangles Robinson and was involved in the production of 24 films. LeGon herself is currently the subject of a National Film Board documentary slated for completion in the spring. Despite her success, LeGon acknowledges she could have gone further it if weren't for the barriers of racism in Hollywood. She recalls being dropped from contracts by film studios which had too many dancers.
"Because I was the brown one, they'd let me go. If I hadn't been a blackie I would have been able to train with the likes of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland."
© Simon Fraser University, Media and Public Relations