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Bring Black History into mainstream

Black History Month has become a nuisance, and I want to blow it up.

Then, I want it to be rebuild it as part of mainstream thought, and not have it treated as it is today - a set-aside every year in February, where we gratuitously highlight the many talents and accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans to American culture and society.

My plea: Get African-American history out of the box, set it free, and incorporate it into what we teach every day as American history. It's a tall order, I know, but let's give it a shot, and open the minds of generations to come.

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No disrespect to historian Carter G. Woodson, who planted the seeds of this month's celebration 90 years ago with the creation of "Negro History Week," but African-American history is history, period. To set aside one month every year to explore it does us all a grave disservice.

Black History Month came into being in 1976 after a proclamation by President Gerald Ford.

About that time, I was growing up in the rural South. My history books contained a few pages about slavery, a few pages about the Civil Rights movement, and much more than that about the "War of Northern Aggression" and Christopher Columbus and our Founders, as best I can remember.

Not much about the accomplishments about African-Americans.

Anheuser-Busch bought radio spots in "honor of Black History Month" that listed black accomplishments and progress during February. That was it. It was up to you to learn any further. What a bummer it was not to see yourself in the history books in significantly positive ways. But because of our country's peculiar history of slavery, it's easy to see why.

That needs to change now.

The story of America, which is still largely colored one way in our history books, needs to incorporate significant achievements of African-Americans and other minorities.

Here are three questions you will hear again this month.

• Who was the U.S. Army's first black general?

• Who invented the automatic traffic signal?

• Who was the first doctor to perform open-heart surgery?

Here are the answers:

Benjamin O. Davis in 1940.
Garrett A. Morgan.
Dr. Daniel Hale Williams in 1893.

Those names are rarely found in popular textbooks and even more rarely mentioned in popular culture where African-American sports and hip-hop figures are ubiquitous and influential.

But learning should not stop and start with the black history facts that we will hear this month.

History - black history - is much more than that.

One of the things I like about President Bush - whether you agree with his politics or not - is the quiet way he made his Cabinet look like America, filling it with African-Americans, Latinos and Asians without much fanfare. Historians will look back at him and President Clinton before him, and note a change on the racial make-up of their Cabinets signaled a huge paradigm shift. Now Condoleezza Rice is the nation's first African-American female secretary of state. Colin Powell preceded her.

That's African-American history, and that American history. They are one in the same, and indeed they always have been.

Woodson once wrote:

"When you control a man's thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary."

Ironically, years after his words appeared in his groundbreaking work, "The Miseducation of the Negro," we have hemmed in the very thing he created, relegating it to this annual mid-winter exercise, closeting it, then dusting it off next year.

It's time for Black History Month to go.

Byron McCauley is associate editorial page editor of the Enquirer. Email him a bmccauley@enquirer.com.


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