Black History Month LeadBoston Spotlight: Michael Bobbitt

Ilana Coolidge

Michael Bobbitt (LeadBoston Class of 2023), Executive Director at Mass Cultural Council, spoke with YW Boston about Black History Month, his career, and the importance of teaching Black history to the next generation. 

What does Black History mean to you?  

As my grandmother Geneva Milhouse would often say, “How you gon’ know where you going, if you don’t know where you’ve been?” I remember as a child, feeling excitement about Black History Month.  As a child of Washington, D.C. public schools in the 80s, Black history focused more on the accomplishments and contributions of Blacks in the U.S. and for some reason, that has inspired me. It reminds me that I come from a long history of pioneer-ship – of being the first! I remember meeting my great aunt, Mamie Peanut Johnson, the only female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues and being fascinated. I come from a long history of pushing for change for the betterment of all people, especially Blacks.  

Usually, in this month, I try to learn about Black Americans that I don’t know. Last year was Ella Baker and this year is Bayard Rustin. Both were incredible organizers and, in fact, the backbone behind much of the Civil Rights movement in this country but are left out of our history books because of gender and sexuality.  It’s a shame. I often try to balance learning about the trauma of our experiences with learning about the joy and contributions of our people.  Also, Black history is American history. I don’t see them necessarily separated.  

What personal or professional accomplishment are you most proud of?  

I think I’m most proud of adapting Bob Marley’s music into a children’s musical. I worked with the estate to acquire the rights to use 15 of his songs and created a whole musical, with a made-up story, inspired by Jamaican culture, history, and lore and Bob’s lyrics in 2013. Sometimes I metaphorically pinch myself when I’m reminded that I co-wrote a musical with Bob Marley!  What!?!  The musical transferred Off-Broadway to the New Victory Theatre on 42nd Street, toured nationally, and is now licensed by theaters all over the country to produce.  Bob Marley’s Three Little Birds is a gift and an homage to black culture.   

How has being Black shaped you? Has it had any influence in your accomplishments?  

Being Black and gay has shaped me tremendously.  I’ve become obsessed with making sure that everyone like me gets to experience the arts. It has helped me to appreciate and revere differences. I am equally obsessed with other peoples’ culture and a desire to experience it through their food, customs, traditions, language, and the arts. Who wants homogeneity? It sounds really dull.  

What is a family tradition you wish to pass down to the next generation?  

Traditions from my family (mother, father, siblings) are pretty atypical of most Southern Black families. My immediate family, my husband, Steve, who is culturally Jewish and our son, Sang, who was adopted from Vietnam when he was a baby, has a number of traditions which celebrate the various differences in our family. This month, in addition to Black History Month, is also the Lunar New Year, Tết. When our son, who is now 22, was younger, we would enjoy lots of Asian food and festivals during this time of year.  The multi-cultural experiences of our family truly enrich our lives and add new perspectives that often inform our views of the world. It’s thrilling. 

What are your thoughts on recent efforts to reduce or remove lessons on Black history in public schools?  

I don’t like that some parents are deciding what other parents teach their kids. When I ran a children’s theatre, often I would get letters from parents enraged about the content of some of the shows we produced. My response would always be, “it is very difficult to consider the parenting styles of every child who might come to our theatre. We hope that if you find something objectionable, based on your family values, that you use those objections to bond and engage with your child.”  So, basically…parent your own child! #ParentYourOwnChild!  

Those trying to remove Black history from schools are robbing their children of education, experience, and empathy. It’s very sad. Black history is American history. As I have grown up and self-educated, I am learning that the country that I thought I lived in maybe exists only as a concept. If we want it to be a reality, then we have a LOT of work to do, and our children MUST be a part of it. Young people are just that: “younger people.” Younger people are vital parts of our society and deserve to know the truth. 

How do you feel you are breaking barriers in the workplace?  

I am oddly excited by it. The status quo is not an accident. It exists for a reason and any chance I get to break a barrier and disrupt the status quo, feeds my own obsession about making art accessible to people like me and people who have fewer opportunities to have access. This excites me to no end and is one of the reasons why I get out of bed each day.  

 In addition to giving my all to support the creative sector of Massachusetts, I spend a lot of time learning new ways of thinking, radically reforming dated systems and practices, critically observing what can be expanded or reworked, learning about precedent from the past to see if it can be used today, and studying the processes of other sectors to see what can be borrowed and used by the creative sector. I see progress as a gain, not a loss. I often see “tradition” or the “what we have always done” thinking in our sector as a way to maintain the status quo. If people are being left out because of “traditions” and “what we have always done,” if the creative sector continues to be financially unstable because of “traditions” and “what we have always done” thinking, then we get what we get. However, I find this unacceptable.  Humans often overestimate threats and underestimate opportunities. 

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