WASHINGTON - If your school is like most, you'll be learning something about Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman during the month of February. But some scholars question whether young Americans really "get" the importance that Africin-American history plays in the grand scheme of America.
Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke University, said that many times the real meaning of Black History Month can be lost.
"Those original purposes of black history month don't seem to be in synch anymore," Neal said, adding that the focus of many black history programs is on a few famous events rather than the entire scope of African-American history.
Recently, actor Morgan Freeman caused controversy by saying that Black History Month should be eliminated and instead black history should be recognized as a part of general American history.
"I understand the point Morgan Freeman was trying to make," said Neal. "But I'm not quite sure that the full African-American experience has been reflected."
"Morgan Freeman ought to remain an actor," said Ronald Walters of the African-American Leadership Institute at the University of Maryland. "It's na´ve to think that if you eliminated Black History Month it would be included in the general historical text."
Dr. Carter G. Woodson is considered the founder of Black History Month. Woodson, seeing a lack of teaching on black history, wanted to ensure that the history of African-Americans would be preserved in U.S. history.
"If a race had no recorded history, its achievements would be forgotten and, in time, claimed by other groups," Woodson said.
The result of that goal was "Negro History Week," first established in 1926. Later, the week was expanded to include the entire month of February.
Sylvia Cyrus-Albritton is the executive director of the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History, an organization that was established by Woodson. She said Black History Month is necessary because it gives young people a sense of their ancestors and the importance of African-American contributions.
"To know your history is to provide the information that lets you know you stand on the shoulders of many Americans great and small," she said.
Knowing the stories of black history also means knowing that anyone can overcome obstacles set in front of them, Cyrus-Albritton said.
"Americans before you have been in the same situation and have overcome those obstacles to become great and become learned and become important resources. That's what we want young people to know," she said.
According to the University of Maryland's Walters, the focus of black history lessons is very narrow, and many grade and high school students are not receiving the full scope of African-American historical experience.
"I still get a lot of kids who show up in my classes [and] don't have the foggiest idea of what I'm talking about," he said. "That tells me that the curriculum at that level is very shallow despite all that has happened."
This month, the Association for the Study of African-American Life and History will attempt to get beyond the basics of black history by launching a documentary titled "Freedom's Song," wherein the stories of significant contributions made by African-Americans over the last 100 years will be told by young scholars.
"What we're seeing is the need to do more research and package [history]," Cyrus-Albritton said, adding that one of the goals of the documentary is to teach people about lesser known but important African-American historical contributions.
Another organization trying to give young people a sense of the scope of African-American History is Kiamsha, a youth organization whose mission is "to use history to empower youth to abstain from sex, drugs, violence and prejudice through peer and intergenerational interaction." The group, made up of students, creates small workshops that reach about 300 students a year.
Lori Croom, an adult facilitator at Kiamsha, said that the result is students, predominantly African-American, who are able to understand and value their history.
"Our history is so distorted. It's not enough to just remember Martin Luther King and the march and the 'I Have a Dream' speech," Croom said. "We don't just focus on the events that happened, but on the minds of the people."
- By Kate Cooper Medill News Service