Annual celebration worth preserving

February 01, 2006|By ANDREA LEWIS

I've had mixed emotions about Black History Month for a long time. While I love that it's an annual celebration of black culture and history, I hate the idea that the February observance is the only time some people feel that it's appropriate to recognize the contributions of black Americans.

But when I hear talk of doing away with the observance, I realize just how much I value these 28 days of February.

In December, Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman called the notion of Black History Month "ridiculous" during an interview on 60 Minutes. "I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history," Mr. Freeman said. "You're going to limit my history to 28 days?"

Others began to chime in, arguing that black history should not be limited to one month, especially the shortest month of the year.

It would be great if the historic contributions of blacks, women and other minority groups were taught with equal weight alongside those of folks who look the most like the Founding Fathers.

But let's be real. The largely monochromatic version of U.S. history is what most of us learned and what is continuing to be taught. Add a chronic case of cultural amnesia to the mix and it's clear to me why an observance such as Black History Month is important.

Times have changed since the "Negro History Week" observance founded by black historian Carter G. Woodson in 1926. Black history wasn't even a serious area of study in Mr. Woodson's day, but he dedicated his life to the cause of making "the world see the Negro as a participant rather than a lay figure in history."

In February 1976, President Gerald R. Ford officially expanded it to a monthlong celebration.

Black History Month (and the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday two weeks before) is the starting point, not the finish line.

It puts the black experience front and center, with an expanded presence on publishing lists, television lineups and other media outlets.

This annual focus prevents the dominant culture from whitewashing our contributions and stereotyping minority communities.

Educators must keep looking beyond the issues of slavery and the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and teach young people of all races that there's more to the story of blacks in America than the stereotypes shown so often in the major media.

If it takes a special month of focus on black history to make those things a reality, then sorry, Morgan Freeman, but I'm going to continue to join the celebration.

Andrea Lewis is co-host of "The Morning Show" on KPFA Radio in Berkeley, Calif. She may be reached via e-mail at pmproj@progressive.org.

Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services

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