Americans express varying views on need for Black History Month

Feb. 5, 2012 at 11:02 p.m.
Updated Feb. 5, 2012 at 8:06 p.m.

When Michael Nash decided to confront a Crossroads pastor in 2010 about an issue that had long been troubling him, he found himself shocked at the religious leader's response.

Nash, a historian who had attended the Fannin-area church on and off for the past five years, was perturbed over the pastor's failure to make mention of Martin Luther King Jr. in January and his failure to recognize Black History Month in February.

"Since it is a mixed church, he didn't feel it was necessary," said Nash as he recalled the pastor's response. "He said he doesn't want to offend the non-black congregation.

"It's a shame because the Civil Rights Movement began in the church. The church was the backbone of the movement all over the country."

After a long discussion, Nash said, the pastor finally relented enough to come to a compromise - Nash would be allowed to do a five-minute presentation one Sunday in February.

While many see the February observance of Black History Month as a time to celebrate the accomplishments of African-Americans and place those achievements in a historical context, others see it as a divisive measure that isolates Black History to one month of the year and, to some, is a form of racism.

Beginning as Negro History Week in 1925 by Harvard-trained historian Carter G. Woodson, the week expanded to a month in 1976.

This year's national Black History Month theme is: "Black Women in American Culture and History."

Filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman addressed the issue of black history in his documentary, "More Than A Month: One Man's Journey to End Black History Month."

"Ultimately, I hope when people watch the film, it is not a question of should we or shouldn't we have Black History Month. Let's consider what it means to have a Black History Month and why," said Tilghman. "It is not an either- or proposition. You need Black History Month."

In his popular blog, "The Texas Fred," conservative blogger Fred Witzell shares his disdain for the month.

He said every ethnicity has made great contributions to the nation.

"I have a serious problem with blacks being given a 'Black History Month.' I find it offensive. I find it very racial as a matter of fact, and I feel discriminated against."

He went on to write, "What would blacks call it if we had 'White History Month?' Anyone want to venture a guess there? ... The NAACP would be filing suit and there would be uprisings all over this U.S.A, because white people want to celebrate their history and heritage with a dedicated and specific month."

Additionally, statements made by Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman ruffled feathers in December 2005 when he expressed his distaste for the concept of Black History Month, describing it as "ridiculous" and re-sparking the debate over the month's relevance.

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

It is this thinking that Sylvia Cyrus, executive director of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, hopes to combat.

"It is still necessary and fitting for America and the world to commemorate Black History Month. There are African-Americans still making history," said Cyrus. Based on the contributions that African-Americans have made in the building and progress of the country, a celebration of accomplishments of the African-American people is really a great America story that needs to be commemorated."

The center was established in September 1915 by Woodson.

"History books still do not include adequate information on the history of black people. Even if it did, the stories of our struggle to triumph are a great American story."

To some, the perceived presence of racism is proof of the ongoing need to use Black History Month to celebrate and educate.

Hilary Shelton, director of the Washington, D.C., chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, used the 2011 Texas debate over whether to offer license plates emblazoned with the Confederate flag in the state as an example.

"Understanding how that is so disturbing to African-Americans is something you would only understand if you know the history of African-Americans," said Shelton. "Getting to know someone is understanding their story.

"Black History Month is crucial not only in the United States, but also in the world."

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, expressed similar thoughts.

"Sadly, in the last couple of years we have seen a resurgence of racism in Texas and in the United States. For those who may have felt that it was unnecessary to have Black History Month, I only point them to recent incidents as a good reason for it to continue," said Bledsoe. "And in Texas it is even more important that we honor it because our State Board of Education is trying to rewrite history and marginalize the experiences, contributions and views of racial and ethnic minorities."

Victoria school district spokeswoman Diane Boyett said the district follows a state curriculum that provides social studies with an understanding of multiple aspects of various cultures.

Although she could not pinpoint specifics about individual Black History Month classroom lessons, she said, teachers will be covering the subject.

"The threads of the culture of people of color runs so deeply in American culture," she said, "it behooves our students to be aware of the history and to appreciate the sacrifices that all people regardless of race and ethnicity have made in shaping our nation."

Victoria residents also shared their opinions on the month's relevancy.

"We have Republicans even now trying to erase the history about slavery. Our nation was built on the backs of our honorable black folks. I think it is important to give honor where honor is due as is written in the Bible," said Cuero resident Dianne Boehm, 58. "What our history was is what our history was. Let's not change it to make a certain group of people better."

John Williams, 59, of Victoria, said understanding history was essential to society's progress.

"If you don't learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it," Williams said.

Crossroads residents also emphasized the need to expose children to different cultures.

"Every child, I don't care what race or religion, needs to know their heritage," said Patricia Pokluda, 62, of Victoria. "I've taught my kids everything about their heritage."

Brianna James, 13, said her school covered Black History Month by handing out informational pamphlets.

Despite differing opinions on the subject, national expert Cyrus contends that Black History Month will be forever necessary.

"We are still not where we want to be, but how far we come as a nation shows progress," said Cyrus. "We celebrate with the world in February, but we celebrate among ourselves 365 days a year."



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