February 17, 2013

Panel Discusses Importance, Future of Black History Month

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Panelists urged audience members to remember that the history and themes of Black History Month beyond the month of February at a panel at the Tompkins County Public Library on Saturday.

Black History Month, which is celebrated in Feburary, was created by Carter Woodson, the compiler of the first major journal of black history, according to Prof. Robert Harris, Africana studies, one of the professors that participated in the panel.

“Carter G. Woodson started this celebration as a means of letting individuals know about the role people of African ancestry played in developing world civilization, and as a means of inspiring black youth in particular to greater achievement,” Harris said. “The more [black youth] knew about their history, their past, the more they would strive for excellence.”

To begin the panel, moderator Eric Acree, Africana library director, asked the audience several trivia questions about influential African-Americans. Acree then posed questions to both Harris and Washington, the first of which asked the significance of celebrating Black History Month.

Harris said that, compared to the past, society currently has a more “contemporary vision” of Black History Month.

“In looking at the multi-dimensionality of the black population, the way that we look at Black History Month today is different from how we looked at it in the past,” Harris said.

Washington also noted that knowledge about Black History Month can vary among demographic groups.

“It may be regional, it may be cultural, it may even be class in terms of how we’re exposed to Black History Month,” Washington said.

Both speakers noted that although Black History Month is important, it is vital to keep learning about black history throughout the year — not just during the month.

“Carter G. Woodson didn’t intend for Negro History Week to be confined to a week, or for Black History Month be confined to a month,” Harris said. “It was to raise a theme, and then to look at that theme throughout the rest of the year.”

Harris also said that society’s view of black history can sometimes be limited to the history of notable individuals such as Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I bristle when I read in the newspaper a reference to ‘Dr. King’s March on Washington,’ as if Dr. King organized the March on Washington,” he said. “We forget totally about Bayard Rustin, who’s the person who really organized the march.”

Harris added that society should “embrace all of those individuals that were involved” in black history.

“If [Martin Luther King, Jr.] had never been born, this movement would have taken place. I just happened to be here … There comes a time when time itself is ready for change.” Harris said.

Washington said that it is important to of cultivate the younger generation’s interest in black history through the medium of movies — a medium that she said has proven to be engaging in her classes.

“It’s amazing what [watching movies] has done in really peaking [students’] interest in slavery,” she said.

Lucy Brown, an Ithaca resident who attended the panel, said there are different ways that people have learned about Black History.

“It’s a continual process that’s been going on all the time. My black history education came from Baptist Young People’s Union every Sunday,” she said. “The black church was very prominent in the movement.”

Acree said he found that the meeting hit on the “importance to still acknowledge and embrace the contributions made by people of African descent.”

“If you don’t have a conversation about the contributions of African-American history, you’re missing out, just like you’re missing out if you don’t talk about the contributions of women, or the contributions of all kinds of other folk,” he said. “Conversations will happen, and we’ll get acknowledgment throughout the year. You just don’t stop here; the conversations continue.”

Original Author: Noah Rankin