This is National African-American History Month in the United States, known simply as Black History Month. Each February, schools, the media, and government offices hold special programs and celebrations to honor African Americans who helped shape U.S. history and culture. In 1926, black historian and teacher Carter G. Woodson declared the second week of February, "Negro History Week." The event marked the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the declaration freeing black slaves in the 1860's, and abolitionist -- and former slave -- Frederick Douglass.
Clarence Page -- a columnist for the Chicago Tribune -- says there was a broader reason for Negro History Week, which at the time was celebrated primarily in black communities. "When Carter Woodson founded Negro History Week," he points out, "he wanted to make sure that black history was not forgotten in the discussions and studies of American history at large."
Forty years ago, the U-S government expanded Negro History Week into a national, annual celebration -- African American History Month. Since then, progress in race relations has led to a growing appreciation of black contributions to American life, culture, and history.
Clarence Page says many Americans, blacks included, now question the relevance of a black history month. "Today, we have to ask ourselves, 'Have we gotten to the point where black history is included enough in our normal discussions and studies of history?'"
He says he understands how people would be ambivalent about black history month. "(They say) 'Why separate out just black folks from the diverse mix of this country -- and why separate out just one month?'"
"There are some people already who talk about 'black history 365,'" he observes, explaining "in other words, we should remember black contributions all year round. And there are folks who say, 'We should remember everybody's contributions all year round.' A lot of people think we talk about race too much." But he disagrees with Morgan Freeman's comment that Americans talk about race too much. "I think we still need to talk about race in this country."
Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman recently called Black History Month "ridiculous." In a nationally-televised interview, Freeman said that since "there is no white history month," there was no need to set aside a special time to celebrate black history. Other prominent blacks -- from both ends of the political spectrum -- have echoed Freeman's comments.
One of them is Robert Woodson, the founder of the black conservative group, the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise. Woodson -- no relation to Carter G. Woodson - says race should be de-emphasized in the study and appreciation of U.S. history. "Black inventors did not make black products," he says. "They invented things like the traffic light, the process of stitching soles to shoes -- blood plasma [discovered by] Dr. Charles Drew - these are not 'black products.' So we should not separate the accomplishments of black Americans but integrate them into regular history."
Mr. Woodson says the concept of Black History Month is anachronistic. "Given Carter G. Woodson's time, his response was appropriate. Just as protests against racial segregation was appropriate in the sixties, when we were a segregated society. Attempting to apply the same strategies to address some of the conditions faced by some blacks today is inappropriate."
In fact, Robert Woodson says, the historian himself foresaw a day when there'd be no need to set aside a time for appreciation of black history. "The goal, therefore, was not to exist on in perpetuity, but it should be mainstreamed. Morgan Freeman is really expressing the vision that Carter G. Woodson had when he first inaugurated black history month. They talk about black Americans as if we are a monolith, and we are no longer a monolith."
The debate over Black History Month is a healthy one, according to Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page. He sees it as part of the process of integrating America's various racial, religious, and ethnic groups into a diverse whole. "A lot of individuals still aren't comfortable with diversity in the country as it is. I think Black History Month is one of those issues, one of those times, that really puts a spotlight on our diversity and our discomfort with our diversity - as well as things we ought to celebrate." Page adds, "I think we really have a lot more to celebrate than we have to feel uncomfortable about, because we have made so much progress just in the last 30, 40 years since the sixties."
Black History Month is not the only celebration of the nation's diversity. Special weeks and months are set aside for Hispanic-, Asian-, and Native American groups, as well as for Americans of European ancestry, to honor their unique heritage and contributions to American society.