Chicago

How to Celebrate Black History Month in Chicago This Year

These are the best ways to spend February recognizing and celebrating Black history, locally and beyond.

The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center
The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center
The DuSable Black History Museum and Education Center

It’s Black History Month, a month dedicated to highlighting the significant contributions, achievements, and joy of the Black community. Most people don’t know how this month-long holiday originated. In 1926, American historian Carter Woodsen-known as the father of Black History Month-set out to organize a week that would be devoted to preserving the history of Black Americans and educating future generations. At the time, the second week of February was already a celebratory week, in honour of Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. But instead of focusing on the impacts of only these prominent figures, Woodsen also wanted the week to serve as a time to honour the contributions and legacy of all Black Americans across the country who impacted history. Of course, that week-long celebration is now what we know as Black History Month. And so, from learning about Black culture, dining at Black-owned restaurants, to dancing at a concert, this year in Chicago there’s plenty to do. Just remember that it’s important to continue to uplift and commemorate Black history and culture all year long.

Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center

Learn about Black history and culture at museum exhibits/events

This month, museums all across Chicago are filled with exhibits and events centred around African American history, artists, performers, musicians, and more. The Dusable Museum has several ongoing exhibits including the feature film project Equiano. Stories, and The March, an immersive exhibit by Viola Davis that focuses on the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The museum will also have other events happening all month long.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, visitors can catch the exhibit, The Language of Beauty in African Art, a display of over 250 sculptures that span across the African continent, that’s up until February 27.

The MCA has a powerful exhibit up until February 12 called Martine Syms: She Mad Season One, an immersive show that features videos about how the Black experience is depicted through film and TV. Also there, the exhibit Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, the 1990s‚ÄďToday is up until April, and is a wonderfully curated group exhibition that talks about place and identity. The museum will also be hosting events including discussions and screenings, artists’ talks, and a soundtrack series with DJ sets and bands occupying spaces around the museum.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum’s exhibit The Negro Motorist Green Book, is up until April 23 and includes images, artifacts, historic footage, and firsthand accounts of individuals who used and interacted with the green book, a book that Black Americans used as a guide for over 30 years.

And on February 20, The Field Museum is celebrating its 30th year since opening Africa Hall. Guests can enjoy an afternoon with a dance performance by Muntu Dance Theater.

Virtue Restaurant
Virtue Restaurant
Virtue Restaurant

Support Chicago’s Black-owned restaurants

There are countless tasty Black-owned restaurants to choose from all over Chicago-it’s hard to choose one. Luckily, Chicago Black Restaurant Week, from February 12 – 26, will be featuring a robust lineup of Black-owned restaurants along with several events.

But you can always eat locally at one of the many Black-owned restaurants in your neighbourhood. There’s the Hyde Park southern food favourite, Virtue Hyde Park; kings of the shrimp and grits, Luella’s Southern Kitchen; home of the french toast flight, Batter N Berries; the creole soul food go-to, Soule; Caribbean hot spot, Garifuna Flava: A Taste of Belize; Ethiopian staple, Demera; sandwich and salad join,t Ain’t She Sweet Cafe; and so much more. There are also plenty of other small businesses you can support like breweries, dance studios‚Ķyou name it.

Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory
Garfield Park Conservatory

Discover how plants connect us to Black history

It’s the coldest time of the year in Chicago which means it’s a great time to warm up inside a green paradise. Garfield Conservatory is hosting this event Black History and Botany Tour with Urban Roots Teen Docent as part of Black History Month. Visitors can learn about how the plants growing inside the conservatory can connect us to Back history. The event takes place on February 26 with guided tours beginning at 1 pm. Another nature-filled activity, Poetry Trail, is taking place in Bemis Woods South near O’hare, where visitors can read poetry made for children written by Black artists as they walk through the trails-February 8 from 10 am to 12 pm.

Chicago Public Library
Chicago Public Library
Chicago Public Library

Immerse yourself in the stacks and some fun at Chicago Public Library

What better way to celebrate Black history than to surround yourself not only with books but also with a community that’s activated, curious, and motivated. CPL is offering a long lineup of events from film screenings, online and live conversations, to book club meetings, readings, and crafts. Kid-friendly events like Paint and Sip: Martin Luther King Jr. Portrait, or DIY Printing and Traditional West African Systems are a great way to include the younger members of our community. Or engage in hard and powerful conversations throughout the month about many different topics like, Our Brothers: A Dialogue on the Current Perception of Black Men, Race and Trauma, and more. Film screenings include Judas and the Black Messiah on February 11, 2016: Obama’s America on February 22, and Monday Matinee: The Woman King on February 27. Or just drop in and check out a book that is centred on Black history.

South Side Jazz Coalition, Inc.
South Side Jazz Coalition, Inc.
South Side Jazz Coalition, Inc.

Let loose at a concert celebrating Black music

Chicago is known for having a rich music history. Genres like jazz, gospel, blues, and soul have deep roots here. What better way to celebrate Black history than by celebrating Black music this month. Head to one of the many concerts around town including seeing the legend herself, Mavis Staples at The Chicago Symphony Center. The rhythm and blues and gospel singer, actress, and civil rights activist will be performing on February 4 at 8 pm- you don’t want to miss this. There’s also the opportunity to bring your date on Valentines day from 7 – 9 pm. to catch a night of jazz music at Compassion Baptist Church, a night of performances by The South Side Jazz Coalition.

Goodman Theatre
Goodman Theatre
Goodman Theatre

Get inspired at a play, poetry reading, or a dance show

On the last Sunday of the month, you can catch Afrofuturism Stage: Chicago, an all-night-long dance, DJ, and photography show at the Promontory in Hyde Park. Or catch a spectacular dance performance by A M.A.D.D. Rhythms who are paying tribute to Nina Simone in a two-hour-long performance that will include tap, song, and storytelling. The show will be at the Harold Washington Cultural Center on February 26.

The Second City’s Dance Likes There’s Black People Watching: A Black Excellence Revue is a lively show beginning February 3, which will include new sketches, music, songs, and an all-around good time.

Poetry has long been a powerful way to share the Black experience. On February 9, Poetry Foundation is hosting Open Door: Jos√© Olivarez, Britteney Kapri, Vic Ch√°vez & Raych Jackson, an event that is celebrating Olivarez’s book, Promises of Gold.

And through February 26, you can catch Toni Stone at the Goodman Theatre, a play based on a true story by Lydia R. Diamond. This play tells the story of the first woman to play in baseball’s Negro Leagues and the challenges she faces.

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Elanor Bock is a Chicago-born, New York-based professional dancer, writer, and renaissance woman, excelling at philosophy, mathematics, outdoor adventuring, and balancing six martinis on a tray in a crowded bar.

Chicago

Robyn DaCultyre Is Doing It for the Culture

"The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone."

Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi
Photo by Kayode Omoyosi

I was introduced to Robyn DaCultyre at an Untitled Queen show at C’mon Everybody in late January, and it was one of the most unique drag shows I’d seen in a while. Afterwards, I tracked down this self-described “drag creature” and video chatted about her drag origin story, the state of drag in her native Ohio, and the dual identities that make up her persona. Thrillist: I want to ask you about how Robyn DaCultyre came about and your point of view behind your performance.

Robyn DaCultyre: I’ve been travelling around the country from a young age in ministry and Christian studies. I moved to Chicago right after high school. Four years later, moved back to Columbus and decided I didn’t really want to do church anymore; that wasn’t where my heart was.

I had a really low point in my life and had a suicide attempt and then really found drag and started doing drag as a coping mechanism and way to let off steam. I started in July of 2019, and it was really a lot of punk and metal music. I created this drag creature of sorts and they were really out of this world and celestial and all of those fun alien type terms.

And then we went into a global pandemic and I had a lot of time to figure out who I wanted to be. Digitally I was still doing a lot of drag creature-esque numbers and all of that, but I had this moment where we’re on the front lines getting hit with pepper spray and rubber bullets and pepper spray-all of those lovely things. And I said, I have this platform and I need to start showcasing what’s happening.

Untitled [Queen] stepped in at the right time and messaged me and said, “I’m doing this show for Independence Day called Untitled in America with 52 different performers and I want you to be a part of it.” It was at that moment I was able to take the footage I had been recording on the front lines and incorporate it into digital content. I did a song called Black Like Me by Mickey Guyton that talks about white picket fences, but if you want to see how America is, then you should try being Black like me. The imagery of what’s literally happening in Columbus in that digital performance really spearheaded me into focusing on people who look like me.

Nina Simone is one of my biggest inspirations, and one of her quotes that resonates with me is that it’s the duty of the artist to resonate with the times. My art is politically charged. I like to entertain, but there will definitely be a time when you come to a show expecting to have your drink and be chill and that might not be the case.

How did the name Robyn DaCultyre come about?

I was smoking with Ursula Major, who was on season one of Dragula, and the first time I introduced myself to her I was Robyn Banks, which is my drag name originally. She said, “Well, do you just not want to be original at all?” [Laughs] And I sat with that for a couple of months, and I got really stoned one day and was listening to Janelle Monae, and she talks about doing it for the culture, and I said “I do it for the culture, too!” And the rest is history.

And you started a series called Melanated.

We started Melanated last February. I told the idea to my show director that there were no shows specifically run by Black people that only featured Black entertainers. I wanted to do this show for a night and she said, Why don’t we do it once a week for the whole month? The first show happens, and it’s a sold out crowd, and [my director] comes back and says we should do this every month. So I sucked it up and here we are a year later.

Melanated is the only fully Black show in all of the state. It’s a horrible marketing tool and not something I want to promote, but it is just a fact. It amazes me that we are the 13th largest city in America and there’s nothing here that’s fully focused on Black entertainers. The name also comes from Janelle Monae; she says she’s highly melanated and I said, that works.

Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)
Photos by Chay Creates LLC (left) and Bridget Caswell (right)

You refer to yourself as a drag creature, as opposed to drag queen or king…

This is actually the first time I’m making this public. I am in this place where I want to separate the alternative creature from who this melanated goddess or whatever is. DaCultyre is definitely the person who runs Melanated and then Robyn is this drag creature that is out of this world and really loves punk and alternative music. And both intertwine to make Robyn DaCultyre.

You also do pageants. Tell me about that.

In 2020 I was appointed by Nina West, who is from Columbus, as the representative from Ohio for National Entertainer of the Year in Louisville, Kentucky. I placed ninth out of 13 contestants and I really fell in love with the system and fell in love with the pageantry and loved the idea of reigning and being different. I want to show that we as alternative performers, as bearded performers, you can come into these systems and shake things up.

Is there a uniquely “Ohio” style of drag?

No, and I think that’s one of the things that makes it so amazing is that everyone has their own unique style, and it’s all pretty much accepted. I started as a performer and a drag creature and there was space that was afforded to me and I transitioned to more glamor and pageantry and that’s afforded to me as well. I’ve been a bearded entertainer for a year now. The cool thing about Ohio is that there is literally a place for everyone.

I think I have everything I need. Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to bring up, or‚Ķ

I don’t think so. Are there any generic questions you haven’t asked?

Generic questions‚ĶI think I asked all of them already [laughs]. I like to ask what you’d be doing if you weren’t doing drag?

It’s a great question. I have a day job that is very demanding so I need drag to get away. I’m also very creative and artistic. I used to do web design and all these other things to pull into my creativity. Drag is the longest thing I’ve stuck with in all parts of my life, so I don’t think it’s going anywhere anytime soon.

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John deBary¬†is a drinks expert and writer. His first cocktail book,¬†Drink What You Want, is available now, and his next book,¬†Saved by the Bellini, is expected in early 2023. He is also the co-founder and president of the¬†Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of hospitality industry professionals through advocacy, grant making, and impact investing.

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