At 75, there's still a need for Black History Month

The Argument

January 28, 2001|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

The reading and research should continue all year, but February's focus is important.

Black History Month is coming, and I don't know what to do. The calendar is going to be crammed with more events than I could possibly attend, even if I were cloned. "Black" theme editions will fill the newsstands. Television programming will take on a decidedly Afro-friendly tone. Book shelves will be stocked with everything from rehashings of collected quotes and mini-biographies to serious studies whose titles mirror each other: "The White Image in the Black Mind: African-American Ideas About White People, 1830 - 1925" by Mia Bay (Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $45) and "The Black Image in the White Mind: Media and Race in America," by Andrew Rojecki and Robert M. Entman (University of Chicago Press, 305 pages, $26).

What started 75 years ago as an attempt to fill in the gaps of American history has become an industry, mixing guilt and obligation with celebration and scholarship. And now I find myself wondering: Is it time to do away with Black History Month? The millennium is here. What better time to reconsider the idea of setting aside a month for commemorating a people's history?

We've come a long way since 1926, the year Dr. Carter G. Woodson began his heroic attack on our ignorance with what was then called Negro History Week. America was all too willing to think the worst of her black citizens. They were a people without history. After slavery, what was there to talk about? In 1976, Negro History Week became Black History Month, perhaps further confusing the populace. A month on black folk? You've got to be kidding!

Yet, we -- all of us who share the life of this nation -- need Black History Month. We are such cautious creatures. We have to be pushed and prodded to leave our mental and social comfort zones. Scientists and geneticists can say what they will about our profound similarities, we remain shaped by our different worlds.

Asking us to live without this month-long burst of exuberance and reflection is to risk our backsliding into the dead ways of the past. The adage is true: Out of sight, out of mind. We still need Black History Month. Why? Because there is still so much story to tell.

Ronald Segal brings to the table "Islam's Black Slaves: The Other Black Diaspora" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 259 pages, $30). An estimated 14 million Africans were sold into slavery between the seventh and 20th centuries. It is still going on in Mauritania and Sudan. Slavery in the countries that followed Allah was different. The predominance of race that held sway in the Atlantic slave trade was not as strong.

Frequently slaves were freed and allowed to assimilate into the culture. They did not suffer the same brutality as those shipped to the Americas. Theirs was a different pain, and a tale rarely told. "Islam owes ... an examination and judgment not only to itself but also to its victims. They have the right most precious of all for the voiceless, to be heard," writes Segal.

In "The Slave Ship Fredensborg" (Indiana University Press, 244 pages, $45), Leif Svalesen presents the universe of the Atlantic slave trade through the eyes of one ship and its crew. He has no need for impassioned rhetoric. Grim facts are enough.

"June 23, seamen Jochum Bollvardt died: he 'was taken up and sewn into the Company's hammock. Lowered the flag to half mast, sang a hymn and he was thrown overboard.'

"Thursday 30 June: '1 male slave died and towards evening was thrown overboard.'

"Saturday 2 July: '1 male slave died of a stroke.'

"Sunday 3 July: '2 male slaves died, including one of our first deck slaves named Ragge.'"

All told, 24 Africans died on the Fredensborg's 78-day crossing from the Slave Coast to St. Croix in the Dutch West Indies. Fifteen seamen died during the ship's voyage along the Slave Triangle: Denmark, Africa, The Indies, and home.

Would such stories have reached the general public without the push brought on by Woodson and others? Probably not.

In "Hurry Freedom: African Americans in Gold Rush California" (Crown Books, 86 pages, $18.95) Jerry Stanley uses Mifflin Wistar Gibbs' autobiography, "Shadow and Light," as the springboard to another hidden history. More than 1,500 blacks tried their hand in the gold fields. For all we know, my darling Clementine came across a few black folks in her travels.

William Oliver, an ex-slave from Maryland, was among the miners working the sluices and panning the riverbeds for glimmers of fortune. All-white associations pushed black men off the best land. Still, 200 black miners found success and used their earnings to buy freedom for 500 of their kin. Yet they could not escape the hatred that sought to corral their lives. On April, 22, 1858, Gibbs and more than 200 other blacks boarded the steamer Commodore for Victoria, British Columbia.

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