Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

For Black History Month, Celebrate Ordinary People

The program's host shares her thoughts on why Black History Month should also prompt recognition for everyday people who do their part to help the lives of others.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Finally, another thought for Black History Month. We went to see the movie, "The Great Debaters" over the weekend. I had already seen it because I had several interviews with the cast, but my husband had not, so off we went. Just like when I saw it the first time, I was struck by the celebration of achievement, of hard work, of brilliance in a story of the award winning debate team at tiny all black Wiley College during the Depression era. But when I saw it the second time, something else occurred to me, that this film is a celebration of people doing their jobs, doing them brilliantly, but doing their jobs nonetheless.

It was debate coach Melvin B. Tolson's job to teach and that of his students to learn. And they all did so with passion and with commitment. Can I just tell you? I think that this Black History Month we could stand to celebrate people who just do their jobs, take care of their families, and do those things with passion, and commitment, and joy, and maybe leave it at that. Why do I say that?

Because I think we live in a time when it seems that nothing any black person ever does is ever enough, unless of course, one is a blinged out music star or a super star athlete, and then any scrap of community involvement or consciousness is to be cooed over and applauded. Otherwise, absent some spectacular show of commitment, one is assumed to be wrong, assumed to have abandoned your roots, forgotten where you came from, and otherwise committed a sin of failing to keep it real.

It reminds me of a political forum I moderated once where a big name rap star was one of the panelists. His participation was welcome because this was an era when hip-hop had already lost its early edge. And hip hop heads were being criticized for having nothing to say except how much sex they were getting and champagne they were drinking. So it was at least refreshing to hear Mr. Rap star's take on politics and policy.

But he came to the conference late and left early and his comments were really not all that deep. But of course his brief appearance was heralded by standing ovations all around, while meanwhile, the working stiffs who had actually organized the forum, paid for his transportation, and arranged it so that the school kids in the audience could be there, well, they were treated to lectures from these same kids about how they weren't listening or doing enough or staying close to enough to their people.

Something is wrong with this picture. In fact, according to census figures, African-Americans and Latinos offer financial support to more people in households other than their own than whites do. A survey by the financial management firm, Ariel Capital Management showed that African-Americans are more likely to support family members other than children, cousins, aunts, siblings, grandparents, than whites are.

In the shape of the river of the seminal 1999 study of Affirmative Action at elite universities showed that African-American graduates of these institutions were more likely to be involved in civil and community affairs than their classmates were. And I would argue that middle class African-Americans as a group are more likely to vote the perceived interest of the community, whether in their own personal economic interests, if you consider how many middle class African-Americans still decline to support candidates who press for lower taxes in favor of those support more robust social services, even if they would not personally benefit from those policies.

Maybe this Black History Month we could take a minute to applaud the people who don't have millions to give to our HBCU's, but who gave their $50 every year. Maybe it's time to thank the guy pays his child support on time, the good girlfriend who takes the kids to the park and gives a hard working mom a break, who checks in on the neighbors, who shows up for the PTA, who brings a cake when there's a death. Is that making Black History? I don't know, but I'll take it.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues
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