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Why Not Everyone Supports Black History Month

February 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Black History Month originated in 1925 when the second week of February was made Negro History Week since it contained the birthdays of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how some African-Americans now oppose the idea of dedicating a special month to black history.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight: a different take on February as Black History Month.

It was in 1925 that the second week of the second month was designated as Negro History Week, that because it contains the birthdays of two prominent figures: abolitionist Frederick Douglass and former President Abraham Lincoln.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford expanded the week to a full month and gave it its present name.

But even within the black community, not everyone backs the idea of a dedicated month, as Hari Sreenivasan recently learned.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In his new documentary, filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman sets out on a cross-country trek to find out whether the existence of a Black History Month separates it from American history and whether its original purpose is still relevant today.

His documentary highlights the evolution of the month, as well as its impact on education, history, identity, and commercialism. “More Than a Month” is part of a slate of documentaries about African-American history airing on “Independent Lens” across PBS stations throughout February.

We recently sat down with some of the filmmakers and subjects and asked them about the relevance of the heritage month.

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN, filmmaker, “More Than a Month”: I used to love Black History Month. I thought Black History Month was really cool.

Around about the time that I was an adult, and I started to hear the same people be brought up during Black History Month, I started to get a little kind of like, is this all we’re going to do? Is this going to happen every year? And then, in 2005, I believe it was, I saw Morgan Freeman on “60 Minutes.”

MORGAN FREEMAN, Actor: I don’t want a Black History Month. Black history is American history.

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: All of a sudden, I’m not alone.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the 1960s, Dr. Angela Davis was one of the leaders of the black power movement.

DR. ANGELA DAVIS, civil rights leader: I think it is important to show a film like this during Black History Month.

HARI SREENIVASAN: She’s featured in the documentary “The Black Power Mixtape,” which aired last week on PBS and features never-before-seen footage of Davis and others.

One of the most visible and radical leaders of her time, she believes it is important to reflect on what the struggle for black liberation has meant to the entire history of America.

DR. ANGELA DAVIS: I think that the struggle for freedom, as black people and their allies have waged it from the era of slavery to the present, is a struggle for freedom that affects every person in this country and that has global implications as well.

So, I would like to think of Black History Month not so much as the history of black people, but rather when we reflect on the struggle for freedom.

TALIB KWELI, musician: Everything about who I am comes from growing up in Brooklyn and comes from my parents. They laid the foundation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Hip-hop artist Talib Kweli narrates the film “The Black Power Mixtape,” and is opposed to black history being relegated to a single month.

TALIB KWELI: I’m personally not a fan of Black History Month. Black History Month is a way to help people to at least try to deal with it for a month. I’m down for thinking of African history or black history as part of a world history, as opposed to it just being a month set aside for it. I think that marginalizes it a bit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Filmmaker Sharon La Cruise is the director of the documentary “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock,” which aired at the beginning of the month. Her film recounts the life of the civil rights activist Daisy Bates, who defended the rights of nine black students to attend the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

La Cruise sees the potential in the audience her film can gain by having a February broadcast.

SHARON LA CRUISE, filmmaker, “Daisy Bates: First Lady of Little Rock”: During Black History Month, there’s a huge focus on African-American stories. And so it kind of gives the film a lot more publicity and access, and it can enter into a lot of different areas.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While most filmmakers would be grateful for the national exposure, the airing of “More Than a Month” put filmmaker Shukree Tilghman in a difficult situation.

Your film is airing during Black History Month . . .

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: . . . as you predicted in the film.

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: How do you feel about that?

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: Yes, I’m torn. I’m torn, to be honest.

On one side, I feel like I understand. I mean, it’s a film about Black History Month. It proposes to sort of do something more or do something different about Black History Month. So, what, are you going to air it in July? But it’s sort of — but, at the same time, isn’t the point to air it in July?

So, I’m torn. I’m torn. I understand that viewers may come February, February 16 in most markets. And I hope they do. But I hope that it re-airs sometime not in February.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In July.

SHUKREE HASSAN TILGHMAN: In July.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: For now, the documentary “More Than a Month” will air tonight on PBS’ “Independent Lens.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: Join Hari for a social screening of “More Than a Month.” That means watching with him, the filmmaker and others online at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time tomorrow.

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