"I don't really celebrate it," says jazz singer and Durham native Nnenna Freelon. "To me, it's a lifestyle choice. Not something you do in a particular month. Chuck Stone, a professor of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill who is himself an icon of black history, puts it this way: "I don't think you should celebrate Black History Month; I think you should create black history."
So, why not do away with the February commemorations altogether? Not so fast, our local activists say. As long as the reasons for creating a special time to consider black history are still with us, we should stick with an annual observance. Sadly, those reasons haven't changed much since scholar Carter G. Woodson created the first "Negro History Week" back in 1926.
Woodson, who spent his childhood working in Kentucky coal mines and later earned a Ph.D. at Harvard, was disturbed by the blank spaces he found in the history books when it came to the contributions of African Americans. The founder of the Journal of Negro History wanted some way to draw national attention to the void.
Woodson chose the second week of February for a celebration because it also marks the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass--two leaders who had a major impact on African-American life. At the time, black history was barely a flicker in scholarly circles, though it had long been kept alive in the oral traditions of black communities.
The years of the Civil Rights Movement made that history more visible--and the need for its study more urgent. (February is also the month a group of black students launched the sit-in movement by taking seats at a segregated lunch counter at a Woolworth's in Greensboro.) With the creation of the national Martin Luther King holiday in 1983, black history became an established part of the nation's collective calendar.
But being singled out hasn't always felt like a celebration. Growing up in Indiana in the 1970's, Gina Streaty--who works as program coordinator at the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture at Duke--viewed the approach of Black History Month with dread.
"In the community where I lived, I remember being afraid when that month came up," she says. "The churches would go into full gear, warning us, 'You all be careful.' It was calling attention to black people, who weren't a group that was really liked. I remember just wanting February to be over."
Although history books have certainly expanded their mention of African Americans since Woodson's time, community leaders say the presentation of black history still leaves a lot to be desired.
"When my kids were little and would get this history in school, it was always in the driest and most limited way," Freelon says. "You know, it was 'Draw a picture of Dr. King. Say what you dream.' It's like when people say, 'I love you,' but they don't really show it."
A better way to teach black history would be "a hands-on experience of getting involved in the community," says Freelon, who was for many years a Durham Arts Council artist-in-residence in public schools. "Coloring a picture is not that helpful. King's dream was meant to be relived by all of us."
The desire to make Black History Month more than a token observance is what's kept it from becoming obsolete. Artists and activists say the celebration is evolving--and it's not just blacks who are interested in keeping it alive.
As head of the Latino advocacy group, El Pueblo, Andrea Bazan Manson spent the King holiday trying to fight new ID requirements at the state Division of Motor Vehicles that will make it harder for Mexican immigrants to get driver's licenses.
"As someone who is involved in Latino civil rights, I look a lot to the African-American movement for inspiration," she says. "We get questions from our own community about what to do in this month. Many parents have kids who are learning about black history in schools."
Rather than jettison Black History month, local activists hope the celebration will one day become a time, when, as the Rev. Carrie Bolton describes it, "we can just stand up and celebrate American history without having to talk about those who've been left out."
Here are some fresh ideas for ways--large and small--to observe Black History Month. For details, visit the Web sites listed below.
Prick up your ears
At WSHA-FM radio on the Shaw University campus in Raleigh, jazz, blues, reggae, gospel and African music are the mix that make up the station's commitment to reaching a "multicultural audience." This month, the station will also be running the Corporation for Public Broadcasting-funded series, "Moments to Remember," by Henry Louis Gates Jr. --short one or two-minute segments that describe the work of African-American pioneers in various fields. "Another thing we're having is a weekly quiz that will be about the achievements of African Americans," says WSHA's General Manager Emeka Emekauwa , who teaches mass communications at Shaw. "The prize is one of our beautiful, very expensive sweatshirts." Visit www.wshafm.org for information.
Claudia Horwitz, director of Stone Circles, a Durham-based nonprofit that supports spiritual activism, says she'll be spending time this month educating herself about the role of hip hop and conscious rap in building movements for social change. "Hip hop has really become the new, popular moral voice in many communities--I'm talking about the stuff that really has a message," Horwitz says. "The days of charismatic leadership, while inspiring, are over. We need new forms, new strategies, new organizers for change and I do think much of this is going to come from culture and from the streets."
Use the media
WTVD-TV's Durham reporter Anthony Wilson celebrates Black History Month by revving up his VCR to tape the many documentaries being shown on public and cable stations. Among his favorites is Citizen King, a look at the last five years of Martin Luther King's life shown recently on PBS. "HBO also has some very good documentaries that touch on the black experience, not just in this country but worldwide," says Wilson, who credits his schoolteacher parents with sparking his interest in history. "People keep saying documentaries are a dying game, but I still believe in the power of a really well-crafted visual piece." He recommends the video offerings at the Durham Public Library, which include documentaries from the collection previously housed at the Carolina Theater.
The Hayti Heritage Center in Durham will be holding its 10th annual film festival in honor of Black History Month. Opening Thursday, Feb. 12, the festival will focus on depictions of African-American historical figures in Hollywood movies. "We're also going to salute our own independent filmmakers," says Hayti's Chief Executive Officer Diane Pledger . "We want to help the younger people." Go to www.hayti.org for details about the film festival and other Black History Month events.
Register to vote
The low-income advocacy group, North Carolina Fair Share in Raleigh, will be concentrating this month on get-out-the-vote efforts across the state. "We want to remind people that it was Feb. 3, 1870, that the 15th Amendment was passed, giving blacks the right to vote," says Executive Director Lynice Williams . "We want not only to register more people to vote, but to get people to understand their political power and how they might become involved--to think of themselves as leaders who can represent their own communities." For information on Fair Share's Fannie Lou Hamer Voting Rights Project, call 786-7474.
Really support the troops
Some of Gina Streaty's most memorable Black History Month celebrations happened during her tour of duty in the U.S. Army. Streaty, who now works at Duke's black cultural center, served in Berlin as a Russian translator from 1980 to 1986. "The military recognizes Black History Month," she says. "And now we have troops that are celebrating it in Iraq." Streaty has been sending care packages and writing letters to troops overseas. "So many people I cross paths with will tell me, 'My nephew is there, my sister is there,' " she says. Here are contacts that Streaty has used to send care packages and letters to U.S. troops: E-mail email@example.com , or call (571) 261-1465. Also, visit www.usafreedomcorps.gov/for_volunteers/find_opps.asp and www.nbc11.com/community/2076924/detail.html
Buy a stamp
When he thinks about Black History Month, UNC professor and longtime activist Chuck Stone thinks about his collection of all 82 U.S. Postal Service stamps honoring black Americans. "When I stand before them, that's black history," says Stone, who is a founding president of the National Association of Black Journalists and was friends with both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. Inventor Booker T. Washington was the first to appear on a stamp, Stone says. This month, actor and activist Paul Robeson, author Zora Neale Hurston and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall have been added to the roster. Who should be on the next black history stamp? "Adam Clayton Powell Jr.," says Stone, who was a special assistant to the outspoken congressman from 1960 to 1965. Also Ella Baker, a Shaw University graduate who helped organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and was an inspiration to young civil rights activists. "She has never been fully recognized," he says.
Celebrate your neighborhood
Raleigh community activist Octavia Rainey has created a new event, "Honoring Our Neighborhood Heroes," to recognize longtime residents of the College Park/Idlewild section of southeast Raleigh. "This has always been an African-American area that has a lot of pride, regardless of the problems," says Rainey, who grew up in the 'hood. "We want to let our youth know they don't have to go outside the neighborhood to look for heroes." The event will be held on Saturday, Feb. 28 from 12-2 p.m. at the Tarboro Road Community Center. Among this year's honorees are a retired nurse, an urban land planner and a former public school principal who've all been active in the neighborhood.
Do your homework
Raleigh novelist Richard Krawiec notes that during the month of February, the African-American members of the Washington Street Writers Group--which he's been part of for more than a decade now--are suddenly in demand. That's good for them, Krawiec says, but he wishes the focus on black writers happened year-round and was more integral to the way people absorb literature. "My 14-year-old son is now reading A Raisin the Sun, which is one of the greatest American plays, not just African-American plays," says Krawiec, founder of Voices, a creative writing program for "at risk" youth and adults. "We've also been reading Antigone and what cracked that open for him was when I said, 'What if Antigone were African American?' I think that's the kind of thing more people should be doing when they read."
Take a seat in the pew
Many area churches, mosques and synagogues are holding special events and performances related to Black History Month. At the Rev. Carrie Bolton's Alston's Chapel United Holy Church in Pittsboro, part of every Sunday's 11 a.m. service ("and this month we have five Sundays," Bolton notes) will be devoted to readings, art installations and songs by young people on the subject of notable African Americans. Historical figures like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks are popular choices, as are more recent figures like Colin Powell and Wilma Rudolph. "We have to build on this knowledge in young people," says Bolton, who says February is among her busiest months for public speaking. "The media blasts us about the pathological side of ethnic groups--especially TV. But there is not enough said about the healthy side and the contributions made."
Create your own tradition
Every February for the past 14 years, E'Vonne Coleman, assistant director of Continuing Studies at Duke, has attended the Collage Dance Company's children's performance at the Durham Arts Council. "In addition to traditional African dances, they also have some of the students choreographing," says Coleman, a former head of the arts council. "So you are seeing the work of teenage choreographers. A lot of them end up going somewhere." Coleman has made the event a family tradition. Her son performed in one of the company's shows and her daughter still attends. "It really is a family affair," Coleman says. "You see the moms taking the tickets and the dads with camcorders." Come early, though, as the buzz about Collage's work has grown. Call 560-2716.