Monday, July 28, 2014
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Black history is entwined in America's

I know I'm a week early, but I want to get a jump start on my Black History Month column before the floodgates of commercialism open.

It's not that I'm not proud of seeing the accomplishments of African Americans magnified. Especially this year, seeing progress with five black actors nominated for Academy Awards; Barack Obama, the only African American in the U.S. Senate, pondering a presidential run; and two black coaches taking their teams to the Super Bowl.

But every year as we gear up for Black History Month - the shortest month of the year, as some comedians like to point out - I ask the same question: When will black history stop being separated from American history?

During a 60 Minutes interview with Mike Wallace last year, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman lashed out at the Black History Month "celebration."

"You're going to relegate my history to a month?" Freeman asked incredulously. "I don't want a Black History Month. Black history is American history!"

As entertaining as the celebratory events are - the plays, music and dance, poetry, readings, food tastings - the focus on celebration is not what Carter G. Woodson envisioned when he launched Negro History Week more than 80 years ago.

Woodson, esteemed historian and author of the groundbreaking book The Miseducation of the Negro, established the week to acknowledge his people's history, a history that had been ignored or erased.

He chose February to honor the birthdays of two men he most associated with attaining freedom for African Americans: President Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14).

The son of slaves, Woodson hoped that setting aside seven days to focus on the achievements of African Americans would go a long way in improving race relations. For whites, the education could help thwart prejudices. And for blacks, a knowledge of their own history would not only enlighten, but empower.

If you could read into his mind, Woodson probably would have hoped that Black History Month would not be needed now.

During the 1976 Bicentennial, Negro History Week erupted into Black History Month, with bells and whistles attached.

And while the commercialism sometimes diminishes the purpose of Black History Month, it is the one time when we get to see rare "race" movies on television, the ensemble extravaganzas of 70 years ago that featured such Hollywood royalty as Ethel Waters, Lena Horne and the Nicholas Brothers. Or important historical documentaries, such as the award-winning series Eyes on the Prize, which chronicled the civil-rights movement.

And in Philadelphia, there has been one Black History Month event that has stayed true to its original historical mission: the African American Children's Book Fair, which will be held at City College of Philadelphia on Feb. 3.

Founder Vanesse Lloyd-Sgambati likes to joke that Justin Timberlake may be bringing sexy back, but for the past 15 years, she has put the history back in Black History Month.

The first book fair in 1992 was a modest but classy affair held in the Crystal Tea Room at the old John Wanamaker building. Much to Lloyd-Sgambati's surprise, 250 people turned out, parents as well as children. They craved books by African Americans that weren't readily available in stores.

Since then, Lloyd-Sgambati has made it a point to invite authors to explain black history - American history - to children in a way that is meaningful and accessible.

The fair also includes books that reflect and chronicle the entire time line of black history, not the usual truncated synopsis that starts at slavery and ends at the civil-rights movement, with almost nothing in between.

To help fill in the gaps, here's a little quiz to test your knowledge:

Who is responsible for the peanut butter on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich?

Scientist George Washington Carver (1864-1943), who discovered 300 products could be derived from a peanut.

Who was the first doctor to develop techniques for storage of blood plasma?

Dr. Charles Richard Drew, 1904-1950.

Who made history as the first African American coaches to take their respective teams to the Super Bowl?

Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts and the Chicago Bears' Lovie Smith.

You don't need an encyclopedia for that last question. All you need is a love of football, as American as apple pie.

Just goes to show that American history lives and breathes every day, every week and every month.

Not just in February.


Check out Annette John-Hall's blog at http://go.philly.com/freeflow


Contact staff writer Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986 or ajohnhall@phillynews.com. To read her recent work, go to http://go.philly.com/annette.
Annette John-Hall Inquirer Columnist
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