Jenice Armstrong | Our shocking ignorance

IT'S THAT TIME of year again, when the debate starts up about Black History Month.

Do we continue to need it?

Or has the month-long designation outlived its usefulness?

Is it offensive even to attempt to cram black history into February, the shortest month of the year? And why do the accomplishments of African-Americans need to be spotlighted anyway?

Haven't we finally reached a point in time when race has become irrelevant? I predict that opponents of the designation will point to recent news headlines as further proof that Black History Month is as outmoded as, say, a VHS tape. Things have changed, they'll say, which they have. A man of African descent is a serious contender for the White House. Condoleezza Rice is Secretary of State. Come Sunday, Super Bowl history will be made when two African-American coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, face off against each other.

Just last weekend, Serena Williams came from behind to win the Australian Open, Tiger Woods is the best golfer on the planet, and the country's leading pop-culture icon is Oprah Winfrey, a self-made billionaire. Also, for the first time ever, African Americans - Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Hudson and Forest Whitaker - stand a chance of sweeping the biggest prizes at the Academy Awards.

It's head-spinning when you stop and think about some of what has transpired. It's enough to make Carter G. Woodson sit up and give a high five from his grave. When he started Negro History Week in 1926, which later morphed into Black History Month, it was to address the fact that the accomplishments of blacks routinely got short-shrift not only in textbooks but in terms of public acknowledgment.

"Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history," wrote Woodson, who was known as the Father of Black History.

It was his wish that designating a special time to spotlight the accomplishments of African-Americans would be only a temporary move. Woodson anticipated a day when America would not only recognize but embrace the roles of all its citizens, regardless of race.

Actor Morgan Freeman was right-on back in 2005 when on "60 Minutes" he pointed out that black history needs to be taught as an integral part of American history. I believe strongly that the two can't be separated. We shouldn't need special classes or certain times of the year to get our dose of either.

At the same time, though, Americans are woefully ignorant of our past. Anything that can be done to fill in the knowledge gaps is a positive thing, especially considering the findings of a recent study by the University of Connecticut's Department of Public Policy. It discovered the shocking fact that while 81 percent of college students recognized that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech advocated racial equality, most of them believed he was calling for an end to slavery. That's horrifying.

It's also another indication that although significant advances have been made, much more needs to be done. Not just for black Americans or white Americans but for all Americans. And until we get further along in that process, there's still a need to set aside time to make sure that the history that gets taught is inclusive of everyone.

I've written about it before and I'll continue saying it. Probably at the same time next year. *

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