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Black History Month still matters



February is Black History Month. In 1926, Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week, which then grew into Black History Month in order to highlight the achievements of African-Americans. Some have pondered whether we still need Black History Month with the election of the nation's first black president, Barack Obama.

I find it amusing that many folks, including some black folks, want to use this one achievement as an example of why we no longer need Black History Month, or discussions about race and racism. I would argue that this is an example of why we need Black History Month: so that we can continue to learn more about black culture, which is in fact American culture.

In the intercultural communications course I teach, we learn that the more you learn about others, the more you learn about yourself. This is because learning about others highlights our differences and similarities, thereby reinforcing or challenging how you see yourself relative to how you are perceived by others. This is applicable to all cultures, whether you're Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Chinese, Japanese, Dutch, South African, Senegalese, West Indian -- you name it, and this idea is relevant to your group.

Eliminating Black History Month may eliminate our motivation to learn more about another racial group. In this instance, black folks resided on the margins of society and history books and were sometimes completely excluded, which is how Negro History Week evolved. This experience is not specific to African-Americans in this country -- think about women, poor whites, gays and lesbians and other ethnic minorities. Black History Month gives all of us, including black folks (many of who know very little about our history), an opportunity to learn more about a specific group and themselves in the process.

If I had stopped reading about Black History Month, I would have missed out on learning about Henrietta Lacks, a poor tobacco farmer, who died of cervical cancer, but whose cells were used to develop the polio vaccine, leading to important advances like in vitro fertilization, gene mapping, and cancer research. Her cells have been bought and sold by the billions, for which neither she nor her estate received a penny. In fact, she never knew or consented for doctors at Johns Hopkins to take samples of her tissues, which helped launch a multibillion dollar industry.

Henrietta Lacks is buried in an unmarked grave in Clover, Va. I learned this from an article entitled "Do We Still Need Black History Month," by Cindy Barnes-Thomas. This article led me to conduct my own research and come across a book titled The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, a white woman who brings this black woman's story to life.

February also marks 100 years of black cinema. William D. Foster began producing films in 1910. The Foster Photoplay Company was the first African-American independent film company. In 1912, William Foster, a sports writer for The Chicago Defender who had served as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. This film played homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.

Although Oscar Micheaux is regarded as the founding father of black cinema, Foster started his company nine years prior to Micheaux's first film. This is three years before D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, released Feb. 8, 1915, a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exist today.

In response to this visceral film, brothers George Perry Johnson and Noble Johnson (a Universal Pictures contract actor), founded the Lincoln Motion Picture Company in 1916, producing middle-class melodramas like The Realization of a Negro's Ambition (1916) and the Trooper of Troop K (1917). Most famous for their film The Birth of a Race (1918), their movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, which was foreign to most films during that time.

Oscar Micheaux soon followed suit with The Homesteader (1919), becoming one of the most prolific filmmakers of his time. He directed more than 40 films, most notably Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925), which starred film star Paul Robeson, and God's Step Children (1938). Micheaux's films explored issues of passing, lynching, religion and criminal behavior.

In the 1930s, Eloyse Gist, a black woman filmmaker -- along with her husband James -- made religious films. This D.C. native literally drove around in her car with a film camera shooting footage that used "real" people as actors. Her morality films Hellbound Train and Verdict: Not Guilty were released in 1930 and screened heavily by the NAACP. Contrary to popular belief, Tyler Perry is not the first person to make films with religious themes or to have a film studio.

Why is this important? For the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, a black film, Precious, is nominated for Best Picture and Lee Daniels is up for Best Director, the second African-American ever to be nominated for this honor. How can we celebrate or critique Lee Daniels or the film Precious and not know anything about those who came before him?

Black History Month exists to inspire people to learn more about people and topics to which they would not necessarily be exposed on a regular basis. Black History Month still matters and is important for everyone, not just black folks.

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