Another watered-down Black History Month

February 28, 2005|By Cynthia Tucker

ANOTHER FEBRUARY has come and gone - another Black History Month virtually ended - without any evidence that American citizens, black, white or brown, are more knowledgeable about black history.

Indeed, it's not even clear that schools or civic groups make much of an effort during February to present anything other than a superficial accounting of the role of black Americans in the development of this nation.

Oh, every now and then, February is used to launch a book or documentary that adds significant dimensions to our understanding. This month's four-part PBS series Slavery and the Making of America is such a project.

Mostly, though, Black History Month is a time for colleges to use their lecture fees to pay for personal appearances by aging civil rights figures and for elementary schools to develop skits about black actors, athletes and entertainers - as if such figures were not already well known. Bookstores stack all the black authors, whether they are theologians or science fiction writers, together in special marketing displays. And local TV stations air public service announcements delivering brief biographies of the usual suspects: Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, Jackie Robinson.

The result is to place black history in its own little 28-day ghetto, minimizing - indeed, stereotyping - the contributions black explorers, inventors and pioneers have made from the time Spanish conquistadors set foot on these shores. When the month ends, educators can return to passing on to schoolchildren wretched distortions of everything from slavery and miscegenation to the roles of black soldiers in World War II and Korea.

Dutiful celebrations of Black History Month did not stop last year's decision by a suburban Atlanta school board to continue using a supplemental third-grade history text that claimed Africans were "brought to America to help" work on plantations. Complaints from at least one black parent had no effect.

Indeed, the textbook's distributor, Don Klein, said he didn't "understand the nature" of the parent's complaint. The textbook, he said, "is not going to be all-inclusive about anything, including African-Americans. It's a survey book."

But the problem with the text wasn't one or more omissions. It was a huge distortion - so great as to be a lie. Africans were kidnapped and brought to this country in chains. They weren't guest workers on HB-1 visas.

Mr. Klein, however, isn't alone in his discomfort with this nation's complex and sometimes ignominious history. Many black Americans prefer a sanitized version, too.

Recently, for example, some black students at the University of Georgia protested a memorial to one of the school's first two black students, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, admitted with Hamilton Holmes in 1961. The university put up a large wall mural in her former residence hall, featuring photos of her pushing through angry whites. The display shows newspaper clippings, photographs and an unattributed quotation that says, "Make way for the nigger."

Angered by the N-word, one black student protested, "There are ignorant people on campus who will see it and think it's all right to say it."

Somehow, I doubt it. Besides, those same students have no doubt heard the ubiquitous use of the N-word in rap music and black popular culture. If they think it's all right to use it, maybe that's where they came by that impression.

To her credit, Ms. Hunter-Gault urged that the N-word be left in the mural. After all, it is historically accurate. She and Mr. Holmes were greeted with jeers, threats and racist epithets. Indeed, their appearance on campus sparked a riot.

A simple-minded discomfort with that complex history may help to explain the superficiality of so many Black History Month celebrations. If both blacks and whites are uncomfortable with a historical record that encompasses everything from whites who rioted over the admission of two black students to blacks who were themselves slaveholders, perhaps it's simpler just to do a skit honoring the late Ossie Davis.

Let's all be grateful, then, that Black History Month is over.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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