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Revisiting history's fade to black



We've just concluded another Black History Month, and as usual corporate America rolled out its best institutional African-American ads to demonstrate its "good will" toward the "black community."

From McDonald's ads to a monthlong celebration at Disney-MGM Studios, this year like no other, mainstream America joined in. One of the refreshing things was the palpable effort to show whites participating in the celebration. This is important; all Americans, particularly whites, would benefit from a better understanding of the black legacy because it is pertinent to many of the social problems that have plagued the white population for years.

All such efforts are to be applauded, for they represent much-needed progress in American race relations. But don't let last month's outpouring lead you to believe that all is well.

Between 1619 and 1926, African-Americans and others of African descent in this country were classified as a race with no history or contributions to human civilization. But in 1915, African-American scholar Carter G. Woodson, who had received his Ph.D. in history from Harvard two years earlier, founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History; in 1926, that association brought about the first celebration of Negro History Week.

Woodson chose the second week of February to pay tribute to the birthdays of two Americans who affected the lives of blacks, Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12) and Frederick Douglass (Feb. 14). "It is not so much a Negro History Week as it is History Week," he said when he began the commemoration. "We should emphasize not Negro History but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice."

Clearly his purpose was to have the record changed to reflect the accomplishments of all, not set aside time to mark the achievements of a few black notables. In 1975 Woodson's organization was renamed the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History and succeeded in creating February as Black History Month.

However widespread, this year's celebration represents baby steps on a journey that still has much terrain to travel. If we don't quicken the pace, our children and our children's children will labor as we have under a burden of racial division well into the new millennium.

From January to March, blacks and whites alike genuflect in sanctimonious penitence and make empty promises about improving the condition of blacks in this country, then go back to business as usual. Those months also allow corporate America to further commercialize black culture. Make no mistake, those Mickey D's commercials and the Disney commemoration were designed to sell hamburgers and attraction tickets.

What should happen each February is a think tank comprising great historians from all cultures working to reach consensus on a uniform, balanced multicultural account of American history. Their outcomes could serve as a blueprint for schools, media and other entities that shape popular culture, and be used to combat one of this country's greatest ills, stereotypical thinking. It also would allow us to better see the degree and manner in which each subculture adds to the racial divide, then collectively prescribe remedies.

The great racial debate currently embroiling our country is not new; our founding fathers grappled with the same issue at the first Continental Congress. Their solution was the infamous "Three-fifths Compromise." Through the amendment process, blacks eventually were accorded full citizenship, but the de facto reality is that too many African-Americans are still economically disenfranchised.

I know, you're tired of hearing about it; I understand, I'm tired of saying it. But now is not the time for fatigue. Our current disagreements are simply growing pains in the birth of a "more perfect Union." Now is the time for all true patriots to demonstrate courage, longanimity, probity and prudence while pressing forward toward Woodson's goal of a nation undivided by race -- not with the shopworn, biased arguments of the past that exacerbate the problem but with new information and a renewed spirit of cooperation. With alacrity and diligence we can and must complete the job our founding fathers began over 200 years ago. Our children's future depends on it.

Clark us host of "The Willie Clark Shoe," broadcast at 11:30 pm Firday on WIRB-TV 56.

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