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The Need for African American History Month*

By Loretta McBride

(Original Published in the Mid-South Tribune in 1998)

            I chuckled when I read that African American author Wanda Coleman would not read her work at the universities during February, African American History Month. In a Black American Literature Forum 1990 interview with Tony Magistrate and Patricia Ferreira, Coleman says, “I do not do readings—unless I owe someone a favor during National Negro Month.” That many African Americans feel the same way might be a secret to few people. Perhaps some Whites also wonder why we still have exclusive celebrations when, as Nikki Giovanni, says they have decided to do the right thing by opening many social doors to minorities. This feeling of segregating themselves from a society that many people fought to integrate might be a reason that some African Americans do no participate in African American History Month celebrations. For them, to keep emphasizing African and African American heritage only succeeds in hurting the integrationists’ cause. Then, too, like Wand Coleman, some feel that everyone waits for that one month to put African Americans on display. So every performance, craft, historical fact is crammed into February, after which African American achievements are put on the shelf until the next February.

            I myself struggle with the performance complex, but as chair of African American History Month, I need to drum up support for our activities and to make certain that the celebration continues. Of course, when Carter G. Woodson established Negro History Week in 1926, there was a great need to let Americans know about Stage Coach Mary Field’s mail route, Bill Pickett’s bulldogging techniques, Charles R. Drew’s lifesaving blood plasma banks and Frederick McKinley Jones’ contribution that changed our food transport industry; he designed portable air-cooling units for trucks. To be sure, in 1926, America was a different country for African Americans. Segregation and disenfranchisement were the laws of our country. So the parade of citizens of color before the American public for one week exposed the insanity of denying rights to Negroes because of race. Nineteen-fifty-four, 1964, 1965, and 1995—these dates have changed the legal status of African Americans in one way or another since 1926; however, the need for information on them continues.

            Perhaps the urgency that Woodson felt is no longer here, partly because of Black Studies programs that so many institutions, including our own, and partly because of media’s efforts to be inclusive, but now the month is a tradition just as are Fisk and Tennessee State Universities, Miss Black America, and the rather new (12-yar-old) Soul Train Music Awards. These traditional institutions are there for people who want to experience the rich cultural heritage of African Americans. Black people are losing or weakening some of their traditions due to integration. As we work to change, rather than dismantling what we don’t like, we need to expand and to participate in our activities and to appreciate that for one month, at least, we are enriched by the many selections on the doings and the saying of African Americans that are offered by the media. Remember, Woodson started with one week. We now have one month. We could try for two. Isn’t January available?

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* From The Mid-South Tribune/Black Information Highway archives.

 

 

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