February is African-American History Month, honoring struggles past and present to overcome slavery, segregation, and poverty, and recognizing African-Americans’ economic, cultural, and political contributions to the nation.
A black historian, Carter G. Woodson, conceived this annual celebration in 1926. Like W.E.B. Du Bois, he saw education as the door to emancipation for African-Americans and founded an association that organized “Negro History Week” nationally. Reaching out to Americans of all backgrounds, Woodson scheduled this event in the second week in February, which includes the birthday of Abraham Lincoln as well as that of black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Although America responded very unevenly to this call for a week of re-examination and celebration, by mid-century, this annual event was observed in many communities. Mayors and city councils nationwide issued proclamations. Black history clubs formed and educators created new classroom materials for the students.
In the 1950s and ‘60s, the Civil Rights Movement helped to widen and deepen interest in black history and culture. In Berkeley, UC students returning from a summer of activism in the South in 1964 formed the Free Speech Movement to support civil rights locally, and third-world studies programs were organized on campus. Today, all of Berkeley’s public schools have programs that teach about racism, and all celebrate African History Month.
“It’s crucial that we observe Black History Month,” said Robert McKnight, who heads the African-American Studies Department at Berkeley High School. “It’s possible for students to go from kindergarten through completion of a doctoral program without learning anything about their own history or culture. This month provides a reminder of the greatness of the past. We don’t focus only on America, but the African experience, from the pyramids to the White House.”
This historical experience is the subject of many of Berkeley’s public school programs during African-American History Month. If there’s a school in your neighborhood, check out what they are offering. The Berkeley School District office has compiled a list of presentations, and you can get more information by calling 883-5222.
Berkeley’s three public middle schools, King, Longfellow, and Willard, all have scheduled evening events in the last week of February to which the public is invited. Upcoming elementary school celebrations include:
• Malcolm X: “Harlem Renaissance: History of a Cultural Revolution,” and potluck dinner, Feb. 25, 6 p.m.
• Thousand Oaks: Nikki Giovanni’s “The Grasshopper’s Song,” and potluck dinner, Feb. 26, 6 p.m.
• LeConte: Student Performance and Quilt Raffle, Feb. 26 6-8 p.m.
Also of interest during African-American History month:
• Berkeley’s Lawrence Hall of Science exhibit: “Race: Are We So Different?” This exhibit examines the history and validity of racial ideas from three perspectives: biological, cultural, and historical, and challenges visitors to question their preconceived ideas about racial identity and difference. For more information, visit the LBL website at www.lawrencehallofscience.com.
• Black History Month celebration for children at Habitot Children’s Museum in Berkeley, Feb. 21, 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.
• 16th Annual African American Heritage Dinner and International Gospel Music Spectacular on Feb. 25, 6 p.m. at the International House near the UC campus with traditional foods from various African and African-American culinary traditions. Dinner is from 6–8 p.m. in the Dining Hall. The gospel music program will begin at 8 p.m., presented by choirs and soloists from local African-American churches. Call 642-9460.
• City of Berkeley’s annual free Black History Month event, Redefining Community. A free “healthy soul food meal” along with discussions, entertainment, and children’s activities, will be offered on Saturday, Feb. 27 from 3-6 p.m. Call 981-5218 for more information.