Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two reasons to celebrate Black History Month

By DeWayne Wickham

I'm not a fan of Black History Month, but I love black history.

The idea that the celebration of black history has been assigned to the shortest month of the year rubs me raw. I think it deserves better than to be treated like an accident of the Gregorian Calendar.
Black history - especially the history of blacks in this country - should be fully woven into the fabric of the history taught in schools throughout the year.

So I usually treat Black History Month with no more reverence than any other month when it comes to celebrating the contributions blacks have made to this society since 1619, the year the first slave ship arrived on these shores.

But this year, I am moved by a momentous anniversary - and a fascinating book - to celebrate some compelling black history during Black History Month.

The anniversary: The NAACP is 100 years old this month. Founded in 1909, the centennial year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, the civil rights organization has been the greatest single force for social change in American history.

The NAACP waged the legal fight that produced the 1927 Supreme Court ruling outlawing whites-only primaries - a victory that made this nation's political process far more democratic.

In 1946, it got the high court to end segregation on interstate buses and trains. Two years later, it pushed President Harry Truman to end racial segregation in the military. And in 1954, the NAACP won the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, in which the Supreme Court banned racial segregation in public schools.

In recent years, the NAACP has been dogged by internal squabbles and has struggled to define its role at a time when economic inequities have replaced overt racial bigotry as the most daunting problem facing blacks.

But this shouldn't be allowed to detract from the reality that over the past century, the NAACP has done more than any other group in America to create the "more perfect union" this nation's founding fathers envisioned.

The book: "Letters from Black America" is a rich compilation of letters written over the years by an astonishing array of black men and women - some famous but most not.
The book deserves a better fate than most literary offerings introduced this month, long a fertile ground for the release of works by black authors. Black History Month has become something of a literary ghetto in which books by black writers collide - like bumper cars at a carnival - within the month's cramped confines. Far too many of these books die a quick death.

"Letters from Black America" is edited by Pamela Newkirk, a New York University journalism professor who once wrote for Gannett News Service. From its first missive, an 1805 letter from an aging slave woman to a son she hadn't seen in 20 years, the book takes readers to places few historians have gone with such purpose and foresight.

It contains love letters written by black soldiers at war, pleas for social justice, communications between Harlem Renaissance writers and letters that attempt to mend the frayed cloth of black families.

Probably the most propitious of the book's letters is the one most recently written.
"You have no idea, really, of how profound this moment is to us," Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker wrote to Barack Obama a day after he was elected president.

Like Newkirk's book, Walker's words are testament to the struggles of untold numbers of blacks whose voices have been silenced for much too long.

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