A Black History Month Pop Quiz

For the last day of Black History Month, essayist Steven Ivory quizzes a few black Americans about their history.

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TONY COX, host:

And now the last bit of programming we'll put on for Black History Month. Essayist Steven Ivory asks and answers, what do African-Americans really know about black history?

Mr. STEVEN IVORY (Author, "Fool in Love"): Frederick Douglass, F.D. Moon(ph), Carter G. Woodson. Those were the names on the front of the public schools I attended as a youngster. My teacher told me all about these great men and it all went in one ear and out the other.

I'm embarrassed to say that it wasn't until I became an adult that I learned just who Carter G. Woodson was. We celebrate Black History Month year after year, but how much history do we really know? And is there even a need for Black History Month?

Some critics say the sheer concept of separating our history is a form of segregation. I wanted to know the feelings of the people. So I went to the heart of black Los Angeles, a popular mall in the Crenshaw District. I began to ask about our history. In the parking lot on the way to their car, I found 40-something Kaye Jackson(ph) and her teenage son.

Ms. KAYE JACKSON: I don't think Black History Month should be designated to one month. I think every day blacks make accomplishments in our history. So it should be celebrated throughout the year whether it be on the 1st, the 15th, or 30th of that month.

Mr. IVORY: Well now, the 1st and the 15th have always been popular dates in the community.

Ms. JACKSON: Everyday is history for anyone. The day that you wake up, you're making history.

Mr. IVORY: Kaye sounds enthusiastic enough. And so I asked her, who is Carter G. Woodson?

Ms. JACKSON: I know him. He's a black inventor of…

Mr. IVORY: She looks pleadingly at her son, who looks away and gazes deep into another dimension the way I used to when my teachers called on me in class.

Ms. JACKSON: That's sad, isn't it? Think, some-timers, Alzheimer's, which one is it today?

Mr. IVORY: A studious 30-year-old brother named Floyd(ph) just kept it real.

FLOYD: Carter G. Woodson? I don't know.

Mr. IVORY: Frederick Douglass?

FLOYD: Frederick Douglass? I don't know his whole life story, but I've heard of him. I know the hair.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLOYD: But I don't know his whole life story. No.

Mr. IVORY: How about one more? How about Booker T. Washington?

FLOYD: It's a peanut butter? Yeah. I'm familiar with Booker T.

Mr. IVORY: Booker T. might have liked peanut butter, but - well, at least my man didn't say anything about this Booker T being in a band called The MG's.

FLOYD: And what he's done with peanut butter. All the different methods he used…

NEFRA(ph): A lot of people don't have any knowledge of Black History Month now…

Mr. IVORY: Nefra, a merchant in the mall, told it like it is.

NEFRA: Something else to do, but we have a real need on a daily basis to let people understand the culture, the race, and who we are as a people.

Mr. IVORY: Go here, girl. You tell it. Now tell me this. Who is Carter G. Woodson?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEFRA: Oh, my goodness. It wasn't the peanut man (unintelligible).

Mr. IVORY: How about Booker T. Washington?

NEFRA: Well, that's the peanut guy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVORY: Boy, we're stuck on these peanuts, huh?

NEFRA: I just can't elaborate on these people, you know what I mean? That's the thing. I know him, I read about him, I've heard about him.

Mr. IVORY: That thing could be the consensus. We know these folks names, we just don't know quite what they did. And I'm talking the ABCs of black history, the basics. There were exceptions, like dreadlocked musician Kenneth Veevers(ph).

Mr. KENNETH VEEVERS: Frederick Douglass, powerful. He was an abolitionist, you know, he…

Mr. IVORY: Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. Oh, Lord, we have a winner.

Mr. VEEVERS: The hair, distressed, the black man. You know, he didn't look like Denzel, but he had the qualities and characters of that black man, you know. That's who he represented to me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. IVORY: Who was George Washington Carver?

Mr. VEEVERS: That was the man who did stuff with the peanuts and all of that. He made different things from that. And a lot of people don't understand…

Mr. IVORY: Finally, somebody put the right name with the peanuts. This brother's on a roll.

Mr. VEEVERS: …scientist, and how many times do you ever hear about a black scientist? You don't, because every time you turn on TV there's the white scientist, but nobody ever hears about black scientists.

Mr. IVORY: Imhotep, a brother selling hand-made jewelry, actually knew something about old Carter G.

IMHOTEP: Carter G. Woodson was one of the most dynamic, far-sighted visionaries, you know, I would say of the past 200 years, you know. When I read his book, "The Miseducation of the Negro," what he said in 1930 is still relevant today, you know.

Mr. IVORY: However, it took one Dr. Rochelle James(ph), strolling the mall, to hit the nail on the head. Here was a woman with answers and an outlook to match.

Ms. ROCHELLE JAMES: You know, that's really a great question, Steve. I think that we're really at a point, particularly for black folk and the entire African diaspora, that there is a greater need now than when Dr. Carter G. Woodson created Negro History Month.

Mr. IVORY: That's who Carter G. Woodson was - the founder of Black History Month. He positioned this annual celebration between the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln so that we might know who we are in this life. And Dr. James seems to know just what Dr. Woodson had in mind.

Ms. JAMES: Knowledge itself. And I think that when we begin the process it is painful, but begin the process of wanting to know who we are and becoming comfortable with ourselves, we'll see the entire energy of African communities throughout the world, a global change will take place.

Mr. IVORY: And let that change begin right here and now, February 28th, the last day of Black History Month.

(Soundbite of song "Say It Loud - I'm Black and I'm Proud")

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Singer): (Singing) Uh. Put your bad self, say it loud…

Unidentified Group: (Singing) I'm black and I'm proud.

COX: Steven Ivory is a music journalist living in Los Angeles.

Well, 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, our special series on leading ladies. It leads off with women in politics.

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