End Black History Month

Say What!?!?!

When I got the preview DVD for “More Than a Month,” the first thought in my mind was “This Shukree Tilghman just wants to start an argument and get some attention. Yeah, Shukree’s got the down and relevant name; but he’s also in that generation that’s reaped the benefits of the struggle. He doesn’t appreciate the history behind the history of Black History Month.”

Well, I was wrong. And I took the bait. But I hung in there. And look at me now. I just used the same strategy on this blog. Baiting the reader in with anger and controversy. It sells. But if you’ve gotten this far, you may not be the one who will judge this documentary by its promotion. And I’m not sure if “spoiler alert” applies.

“More Than a Month” is a very thoughtful documentary from the perspective of a filmmaker who was not born during the Civil Rights movement or got the first copies of Survey Graphic’s “New Negro” special edition hot off the press. “More Than a Month” poses the question with some context about Black History Month without coming to a definitive conclusion. And that’s okay. The final word may be “both/and.” The title says it all – key word MORE. For Shukree the question is when will the history of the African American experience be American history.

When Shukree came to town to screen the documentary at National Geographic this week (he’ll be back February 26 – see info below) I asked him if the “bait and switch” promotion may be doing the film a disservice in getting the message out and losing audience as a result.

Maybe they like that image of Shukree wearing the “End Black History Month” sandwich board. Or not. Both/and. There’s a lot of push back when you come out strong with “End Black History Month.” People go into fight mode and that’s humorously enacted in the documentary. There may be audience dismissing the film altogether. Identity issues are very sensitive issues. “Who tells who’s history” is part of a broader power struggle, and Shukree gives some thought to that as well. But for the brave souls who’ve shown up at the previews, they’ve given “More Than a Month” an enthusiastic thumbs up. Some still question; some ponder the questions. A few still point out what the film doesn’t say. But word-of-mouth is going to be the ticket; not the sandwich board.

Of course, I’m in Washington, DC the birthplace of Negro History week that became Black History Month thanks to the work of Carter G. Woodson whose home on 9th Street near the Shiloh Baptist Church is a national landmark. “More Than a Month” gives Woodson his due for a new generation – praise but let’s not get too serious. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the organization that was originally founded by Woodson looks forward to having his home become a museum. The National Park Service is holding the required community meeting 6 PM, February 22, three days before the ASALH annual Black History Month luncheon, four days before Shukree takes the stage again to discuss “More Than a Month.” The museum status is still up for discussion as is Black History Month.

Somehow it becomes apparent that without Carter G. Woodson’s effort to bring black history into the fold of American history and emphasize its value, there probably wouldn’t be commemorative months for women, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, Poets, Asian and Pacific Islanders, jazz music. We may all stand on Woodson’s shoulders. I imagine it would be history as usual told from a single perspective. As one parent noted in the film, how can mommy compete with a text book? I had this experience in grade school when I told my father all Black people were slaves before emancipation and he said “Not in my family.” I didn’t believe him. I found out, years later and through the “proper channels” dad was right about his lineage that included “free people of color” and others. Those stories rarely make it into a public school textbook. Woodson’s story and motivation may be similar to his contemporary Arturo Alfonso Schomburg who faced the same resistance in his native Puerto Rico to lifting up the contributions and value of peoples of African decent to the world. He too started a collection which became the foundation for what is now the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.

This week PBS’s Newshour aired this segment titled “Why Not Everyone Supports Black History Month?” Aside from the awkward title phrasing (okay, leave it alone), again, the Newshour uses the bait and switches up with a good discussion with people like Angela Davis, “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock” filmmaker Sharon La Cruise, Hip Hop artist Talib Kweli, and, of course, Shukree Hassan Tilghman.

Watch Why Not Everyone Supports Black History Month on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.

If you’ve come this far in the post, then you’re ready to take the next step. If you’re in the DC area, come out to one of the FREE public ITVS Community Cinema screenings of MORE THAN A MONTH and meet Shukree Hassan Tilghman:

Sunday, February 26 at 12:30 PM
, Shukree will be the guest for “Coffee and Conversation” at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center (1529 16th Street, NW) followed by a screening in Theater J, the main theater and a Q&A with E. Ethelbert Miller (aka E-bert), poet, literary activist and director of Howard University’s Afro-American Studies Research Center. RSVP requested. Eventbrite link.

And at 5 PM on February 26 WHUT Howard University Television (2222 Fourth Street, NW) hosts the final Community Cinema event followed by a Q&A with Shukree Tilghman and Jacquie Jones, executive director of the National Black Programming Consortium. RSVP by Eventbrite or call 202-806-3200.

And btw, WHUT is broadcasting “More Than a Month” (“Independent Lens” series) Saturday, March 17 at 8 PM; Tuesday, March 20 at 10 PM. (Check local listings) More screenings are being planned for March in Maryland.

Mission Accomplished?