Some blacks take Freeman to task over CBS interview

December 21, 2005|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTER

Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton isn't going to hold it against actor Morgan Freeman for slamming the need for Black History Month.

She isn't mad that the Oscar winner said on CBS' 60 Minutes that it's "ridiculous" to relegate one month to black history and that the practice should be abolished.

But as director of the group founded by the father of Black History Month, Carter G. Woodson, Cyrus-Albritton says she has an important message for Freeman: "We're not there yet, Morgan."

It was a response echoed by many civil rights leaders and historians across the country yesterday after Freeman's statements, broadcast Sunday, sparked a heated debate over whether, as he suggested, the only way to eliminate racism is to just stop talking about it.

"Mr. Freeman was giving an opinion that does not jibe with the best information we have," civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson says. "Unless blacks are given due credit for what they do, we need to continue teaching black history, for both esteem purposes and edification. ... I have a lot of respect for him as an actor, but [the] actor makes a statement, an observation. He is not a historian. He is projecting an idealism. We should leave this debate to historians."

Cyrus-Albritton of the 90-year-old Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Washington, agreed that the job of educating Americans about black history is far from done.

"We have a mission to research, promote, preserve and disseminate information about the contributions of African-Americans in history and their diaspora," she said. "When that mission is complete, maybe celebrations like Black History Month can take a different slant. American history books - and the way it is taught - still [do] not include the full contribution of African-Americans or other minorities for that matter.

"Dr. Woodson hoped that one day there would no longer be a need for Black History Month because it would be incorporated into American history all year round. So the goal Morgan Freeman speaks of is our goal as well."

Many critics went further, calling Freeman "naive" for suggesting that racism would disappear if people stopped labeling each other by skin color, and "silly" for saying there should be no Black History Month since there is no White History Month or Jewish History Month.

Some saw Freeman's words as a betrayal of the black community, reminiscent of comedian Bill Cosby's criticism of low-income blacks last year, but others praised the actor for spurring the recent dialogue on race.

And despite the critics, there are a growing number of people who believe that designating one month to black history only helps to trivialize it.

Black History Month traces its beginnings to 1926 when Woodson noted the absence of a history of black Americans in school textbooks and came up with the idea for Negro History Week. Believing that the exclusion was intentional, Woodson sought to highlight the achievements of blacks in America during that week, which was mostly observed in black schools, churches and YMCAs around the country.

It took 50 years before it was expanded into a monthlong celebration.

"Racism is built into the structure of society," says Ron Walters, the director of the African American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "It's not just a question of individual action. It's built into public policy. It's built into education. It's built into a number of the things that have impact on millions of people. To say there's no need for Black History Month is to assume that there is an equality of being that does not exist.

"Whites do not need a day to mark their history because they are written into history every day," Walters says. "The opposite is true for African-Americans. Morgan Freeman is an accomplished actor, but we probably shouldn't make more of his statement than that. The problem is that I could be writing serious tomes about this issue for years and then some stupid remark comes along that would take precedence over that."

dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

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