GENE ROBERTSON: Let's get back to the real purpose of Black History Month

Monday, February 11, 2013 | 5:52 p.m. CST; updated 6:34 p.m. CST, Monday, February 11, 2013

When Carter G. Woodson started Black History Month, it was intended to encourage black people to enhance their understanding of themselves and be inspired by the courage and contributions to civilization through their historical roots. Black History Month has been reduced to a means of celebrating popular culture and creating the false image of contemporary progress.

All celebrations — Christmas, Easter, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday  — are more economic vehicles than they are substantive celebrations of the intended occasion. Black celebrities jump at the occasions to make money from the institutions, which seek to perpetuate the illusion that things are much better for black people and that the institution has played a significant part in this illusion of progress. Awards are presented for any notable or created reason. Receptions are held; marches and memorials are developed and visited.

Rarely does anyone continuously seek the integrity and substance of Woodson's intended objectives. Black History Month observations are reduced to the level of the various image award shows without the entertainment level of those events. There is little that is inspirational or motivational. These events stress a personality rather than how one accomplished what they might have accomplished.

In this society where racial equality is legally affirmed, according to former Harvard law professor Derrick Bell, economic equality is regressing despite affirmative action. Bell attributes this problem to the self-interest of whites. I blame self-interested and passive blacks as well. Recently, activist, singer and philanthropist Harry Belafonte challenged the African-American community to engage more in the social discourse that is affecting the African-American community. Issues such as gun control and community violence, jobs and incarcerations ought to be part of the discourse of our black leadership. He asked the question at the NAACP Awards Celebration. Why are our leaders not stirring it up? I ask the same question and offer a means of doing it that might be acceptable to at least some of us.

Why don’t we infuse a community development process into the Black History Month Celebration? We could begin the process at the local level everywhere by starting with an assessment of our present situations using the most reliable assessment tools available to us. Everyone could participate in this process, especially the Urban League, NAACP and most importantly the black churches. We could engage in goal setting based on our assessment using historical references as models. Educational institutions could legitimately participate in this process. We could establish meaningful related criteria for celebrating genuine black contributions, which ought to be valued in the black community, based upon our local and later broader assessments criteria, not just fame. Our heroes could be redefined from people who make money exploiting us to people who really help us directly, locally and worldwide.

Black History ought to contribute to the expansion and development of our priorities and civilizations, locally and worldwide. The contributors to this process who are not black should not be ignored. They should be recognized. There is enough credit and blame to go around. We could exploit our potential to coalesce among ourselves and with other groups in Hispanic, white, Native American and Asian groups utilizing current and future technology.

Being worthy of note is not necessarily being extraordinary. Sometimes it means helping and being generous when opportunities are available. Making the helping gestures that are needed. Each of us doing what we have the capacity to do contributes positively to our history. Everyone doing their “something” to contribute to our history together can equal significance. That’s the kind of heroism I would like to see. The kind of integrity that our ancestors displayed. This is a simple but meaningful way to celebrate Black History Month.

William E. "Gene" Robertson is a Columbia resident and a professor emeritus at MU. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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