WASHINGTON, D.C.—The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) and the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Spouses recognized the contributions of three icons in the arts during its Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts, held at the Newseum in N.W. D.C. Sept. 24.
This year’s honorees, Phylicia Rashad, Bill Withers and Dr. Alvin Poussaint, epitomized respectability, grace, and uncompromised talent. Each provided insight into the impact the arts had on their personal and professional lives.
Poussaint, a psychiatrist and professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School has written more than 100 articles and professional publications, including “Why Blacks Kill Blacks.” He spoke of wanting to deal specifically with the crippling mental and emotional impact racism had on African Americans during the mid-1960s, when he had no Black patients.
“I finally got one Black patient and he was thinking he had been assigned to me as a means of segregation, but I told him, ‘No don’t say anything about it because I need a Black patient.’ And right around this time in 1965 the Watts riots broke out in Los Angeles and I’m a psychiatrist and these Black people are burning down the city and so they come and ask me ‘why are they doing it?’”
Poussaint’s work also included serving as a consultant for “The Cosby Show,” the television sitcom featuring Bill Cosby and fellow honoree, Phylicia Rashad, as a professional couple managing successful careers and five children.
Rashad, who is probably best known for her role as the ever-supportive “Claire Huxtable” on “The Cosby Show”; has also garnered theater accolades, earning a 2004 Tony Award for her performance in “A Raisin in the Sun.” With that award, Rashad became the first African-American woman to win the award in a dramatic leading role. A long-time supporter of the arts and art programs in schools, Rashad addressed her concerns over arts programs in public schools.
“I grew up and went to school in America during a time when there was segregation and I attended segregated schools. In my school, though, there were instruments that students could borrow and take home with them to learn and practice.
Withers, the legendary singer-songwriter, whose nearly forty-year-career made household themes of songs like “Lean on Me” and “Grandma’s Hands,” and who was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2005, paid homage to his relatives and the manner in which they embraced education as a means to uplift.
“My mother’s father was born in 1854 — that means that despite my vibrant, youthful appearance, I am the grandson of a slave. My brother would have been 100 years old this year and I saw my brother study for the post office exam because he had gotten crushed in the coal mines and couldn’t work there anymore. He studied for that mailman’s test like it was finals at Princeton. I felt so bad for him because he’d only gone to the third grade and I wanted to take the test for him. But on his third try, he passed and he was the happiest mailman I’ve ever seen. What I’m trying to say is that he educated himself out of the coal mines. The sum total of what you know, is your education,” Withers said.
Vice President Joe Biden was on hand to thank the honorees for their years of inspiration.
The Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts raises scholarship funds for students pursuing visual and performing arts. Past honorees include B.B. King, Quincy Jones, Tyler Perry, Alice Walker, Robert Townsend, the O’Jays, and most recently, critically acclaimed Artist Carrie Mae Weems, award-winning Director/Producer Antoine Fuqua, and visionary Educator and Novelist Tananarive Due.
“Any discussion about African-American history and culture must include African-American artists,” said A. Shuanise Washington, the president and CEO of the CBCF. “Through the Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts, the CBCF and the CBC Spouses pay homage to those whose creative bodies of work convey the rich and diverse African-American experience. CBCF is proud to support the next generation of great artists with scholarships to pursue their education and hone their crafts.”