Why Black History Month Matters

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Commentator Carole Simpson reflects on why Black History Month is important. Simpson was a long-time anchor of ABC's World News Tonight Sunday and is currently a leader-in-residence at Emerson College in Boston.

TONY COX, host:

We just heard about two iconic aspects of black history - the Harlem Renaissance and Marcus Garvey. We wrap up with commentator Carol Simpson on why black history matters.

Ms. CAROL SIMPSON: When I was growing up, there was no such thing as Black History Month. I vaguely remember hearing mentions of Negro History Week. Yes, it was only a week and we were still Negroes. As far as I could tell on my Southside Chicago neighborhood, there was nothing special about that week and we didn't hear about it in school.

Long after I grew up, Negro History Week grew as well and became Black History Month. In some places these days it has become a full-fledged month-long celebration of black art, music, religion, drama and scholarly discussions. It has also been the subject of ridicule and controversy.

Why do black people get a month all to themselves, ask some whites. Answers blacks: White people have the whole year. Black people have been heard to say that white America slighted us again by making observances of African-American heritage occur during the shortest month of the year.

But there's a very good reason February was chosen. Dr. Carter G. Woodson, one of our first and foremost black historians, was disturbed by the way Negroes were portrayed or not portrayed at all in American history books. In 1926, he called for a week to be set aside to celebrate the contributions black people had made throughout the country's history.

He thought it was important for black people to know their history, and for white people to appreciate the contributions we made and continue to make through our country.

It was Dr. Woodson who chose the second week in February because it contained the birthdays of two men who had a profound impact on the lives of black Americans: Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist and civil rights leader, and Abraham Lincoln, who freed the slaves during the Civil War.

Fifty years later in 1976, Negro History Week became Black History Month. Is it still relevant in 2007? If you talk to young black Americans, the leaders and events we celebrate are ancient history. They say they're sick of hearing about slavery. They're more interested in Ludacris and P. Diddy than DuBois and Malcolm. Others say a separate month ghettoizes black history.

If you ask me, Black History Month is still relevant. We still need the short, cold month of February devoted to from whence we came. Without it, future generations won't even know or care that the ever present problems of black people are slowly but steadily slip-sliding off America's radar.

COX: That was Carol Simpson, long-time anchor of ABC's "World News Tonight Sunday." Simpson is currently leader in residence at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.

(Soundbite of music)

COX: That's our show for today. Thanks for being with us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Tomorrow, we hear about a winning way to teach math and science to minority students.

I'm Tony Cox. Farai Chideya will be back tomorrow. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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