Posts Tagged ‘Black History Month’

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. Click here to read more.

This article originally appeared in its entirety in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga Burton serves as cultural critic.

Chris Matthews Makes Black History

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.

MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews put his proverbial foot in his mouth last week following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union Address.

The world was watching President Obama, the man previously with the Midas touch. He had come under fire from many in the country, including his own party, with the Democrats losing the Senate seat in Massachusetts, thereby losing power in the Senate. President Obama’s poll numbers were also in decline, suggesting that citizens were losing faith in his ability to turn the country around.

I have to admit that I wasn’t looking forward to watching the address because I wasn’t interested in hearing him do more of the same — accept all of the responsibility for the problems in the country that preceded him, support his lame party that does not support him and not acknowledge that the only bipartisanship that the Democrats and Republicans have is to collectively work against him.

Imagine my surprise when President Obama came out swinging, taking everyone to task and demanding that we get over ourselves in order to create the change that is needed to move this country forward. Gone was the man who seemed to be slightly off of his game, at least by all media accounts; in his place, stood the president of the United States who had finally realized his power and concretely stated that he would use it to do what is necessary for this country.

I like tough talk, so my inner Republican stood up and clapped, even if the real Republicans tried hard not to clap in opposition to his policies.

Fast-forward to Chris Matthews, who was so visibly excited about the president’s speech because — say what you will about President Obama, but — the man can deliver a speech like few others. He has the ability to pull you in, connect and have you motivated to go out and change the world.

Matthews caught the bug and looked like he could barely contain himself. He was jovial and energetic as he ran back the plays of the actual address. Matthews, who can be a loudmouth, usually goes hard after folks, especially this president, so I waited for him to pounce; yet he didn’t.

What Matthews did do was make one of the craziest public statements that I’ve heard in a long time: The address was so good that he forgot that President Obama was black. REWIND. Take the needle off of the record. Come again? President Obama’s speech was so good that he forgot that he was black? Wow (in my Mos Def voice). In 1980s terms, I burst out laughing … and in today’s terms I was LMFAO.

Matthews dared say what so many people think, and while he tried to clean it up almost immediately, the words had landed.  Click here to read more.

This article originally appeared in Creative Loafing, where Nsenga Burton serves as cultural critic. Follow her on Twitter @ntellectual.

100 Years of Black Cinema

Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D.

As we all know, February marks Black History Month. But this year, February also marks something else: The 100th anniversary of the birth of black cinema. Black cinema was making black history before Carter G. Woodson founded Negro History Week in 1926. And this week, black cinema is making history once again with the nomination of Precious: Based on the Novel Push By Sapphire for Best Picture. It’s the first time in the history of the Academy Awards that a film directed by a black director is nominated for the top award. Director Lee Daniels is following in the footsteps of those who came before him—namely, William D. Foster and Oscar Micheaux.

Oscar Micheaux is often lauded as the father of black filmmakers. But William D. Foster began producing films nearly a decade earlier than Micheaux’s first effort. In 1910, Foster, a sports writer for the Chicago Defender, formed the Foster Photoplay Company, the first independent African-American film company. (Foster wasn’t a complete stranger to show business; he had also worked as a press agent for vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker.) In 1912, Foster, produced and directed The Railroad Porter. The film paid homage to the Keystone comic chases, while attempting to address the pervasive derogatory stereotypes of blacks in film.

This was three years before D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), a plantation fantasy credited with establishing negative stereotypes of blacks in film that still exists today. Consider the Reconstruction scene, where barefoot black legislators eat fried chicken, swill whiskey, lust after white women and pass a law that all legislators must wear shoes. Insert a cantankerous mammy, tragic mulatto, murderous buck, black rapists and a lynching, and you’ve got what is shamefully considered to be one of the greatest films of all time.

In response to The Birth of a Nation, 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) and their most well-known film, The Birth of a Race (1918). The Johnson brothers’ movies featured black soldiers, black families and black heroes, concepts foreign to most mainstream films at that time. Click here to read more.

This article originally appeared in The Root (

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