Black History Month: Does It Fuel Racism?

Recently, Larry Watson saw proof in one of the college classes he teaches that Black History Month was needed more than ever.

"I asked the students in my class whether they knew who their Senate representative was," said Watson, who teaches music and sociology at three colleges in Boston. "No one knew. And when I asked who was Sen. Edward Kennedy -- the most activist senator in our country -- the only thing most of my students could say was that he was fat and that he was drunk. I hate to think what would have happened if I'd asked who was Shirley Chisholm."

For the record, in 1968, Chisholm became the first black woman elected to Congress. In 1972, she ran for president, receiving 151 of the delegates' votes at the Democratic National Convention. And Kennedy has represented Massachusetts in the Senate since 1962.

"Our schools do not teach the importance of politics to history," Watson continued. "Black History Month is needed now more than ever and needs to be taught all year around."

Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman raised eyebrows when he called the concept of Black History Month "ridiculous," noting that there was no white history month.

"You're going to relegate my history to a month?" he said, during an interview aired on CBS' "60 Minutes" in December. "I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history."

As February -- and another annual Black History Month -- begins tomorrow, debate on the necessity of the celebration continues.

"It's a shame that it [black history] hasn't been integrated into history courses all year round," said Dwayne McDuffie, a TV writer and co-founder of the now-defunct Milestone Comics, which showcased a line of comic books featuring black superheroes in the 1990s.

"It's important because you need to see yourself reflected in history. It's important for Asians to hear what they have contributed to [American] history, it's important for Latinos to hear what they have given to history. It is important also just to remind white people that they didn't do everything."

The Corporate Kidnapping of Martin Luther King Jr.

Black History Month has its roots in 1926, when historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson launched Negro History Week to bring attention to the contributions of black people to American history.

He chose the second week of February to recognize black history because it marked the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Negro History Week ultimately became Black History Month. Woodson had hoped, however, that one day the need to have a special recognition of black history would be eliminated and that black history would be fully recognized as fundamental to American history.

However, some critics argue that Black History Month has become a celebration full of clichés, familiar praises of Martin Luther King Jr., and "Living the Dream" commercials that focus on black leaders and sports and entertainment figures.

Year after year, you can count on hearing reflections on the horrors of slavery, and the bravery of Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. Politicians and dignitaries invoke King's name as they say that much has been achieved. But much more needs to be done to fully realize "The Dream." The contributions of the black press, New York's legacy of slavery, or the existence of black slave owners are rarely publicized.

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