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Black History Within Plain View

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By Ruth B. Love, NNPA Guest Commentary 

Black History Month is a specific time in the calendar year designated to pause and pay homage to the vast contributions of African-Americans in and for this country. When we stop to celebrate the struggles and achievements of Black people, we are reminded of the imperative of teaching and weaving these achievements into the fabric of school curriculum throughout the year. If the instructional information and program in all schools do not include more than a few smidgens about the contributions that are part of African-American history and culture, we are denying all children of valuable information necessary to become educated citizens. For Black children, we are denying them of their birthright.

Black history has been characterized by many African-Americans as “sacred narrative” because of its evolution, its vitality and significance. My position is that Black history is within our midst in plain view as Americans, young and old, go about their daily lives. But who know it when they see it?

A few examples in plain view: the 3- way stop signal, first invented by Garrett Morgan in 1923. As you stop to drop letters into a mailbox, think of P.B.

Downing, who invented and patented the street letterbox in 1891. When you buy a pair of shoes, a Black American, Jan Matzeliger, first developed shoe lasts for the right and left foot. As you watch a golf game, recall that George Grant, a Black American, invented the “golf tee.”

Omvtrfon;u, at a time when many African-Americans were not permitted to read, write or hold a book, an African- American invented the “pencil sharpener (J.L. Love, 1897) and the fountain pen (W.B. Purvis, 17890).

The vast contributions of African- Americans can be found in the field of music, science, technology, art, education, sports, poetry, fashion, literature, etc. Students may hear about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but do they know about Dr. George Washington Carver, whose discoveries of products made from the yam and peanut are patented and in wide use today; or Carter G. Woodson, whose brilliant idea conceived of Black History Week?

Historically, African-Americans worked disproportionately in homes and in agricultural fields where they invented and devised devices to help in the arduous, hard work. Inventions such as the ironing board, curtain rod, hair brush, kitchen table, lemon squeezer, ice cream mold, law and water sprinkler, lawn mower, folding bed, window lock, are just a few of the practical outcomes of the creative and inventive minds of African- Americans.

Why study Black history? African history goes back to 400 B.C. Given the fact that Africa is the ancestral birthplace of African-Americans, education is incomplete without teaching and learning the history and culture of both the Continent of Africa and African Americans in the Diaspora. The critical question is not “Why study Black History”? Rather, the question should be “Why not study Black History?”

Dr. Ruth B. Love is former superintendent of schools in Oakland, Calif. and Chicago. Currently, she is professor of Educational Leadership in Equity Doctorate Program, Univ ersity of California - Berkeley and president of RBL Enterprises.

Avatar and Tarzan

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By Gary L. Flowers, NNPA Columnist --

Most Americans over 45-years old remember the movie Tarzan, King of the Apes. For those younger, Tarzan, the movie, was set in the jungles of Africa and falsely depicted natives as primitive and backward. That is, until baby Tarzan is raised by the natives and taught their social mores and cultural rituals.

As Tarzan grows older he become “one of the natives” and eventually “king of the natives.” Such a scenario was not far fetched for the racist-tinged times of the 1950’s and 1960’s. However, evidence that the United States of America is not “post-racial” may well be found in the racially and ethnically stereotypical movie, Avatar released in 2010. While Avatar shifts the motion picture paradigm brilliantly with respect to special affects the essential story line is: Good hearted Anglo soldier signs up to infiltrate native culture and convince them to vacate their homeland in order to permit imperialist nation to mine natural resources for national use. Mid-way through mission soldier is conflicted and “joins” natives, only to become their leader against super power. Tarzan and Avatar are lamentably linked together by the cross of religious disrespect and cultural condescension. For example, the opening scene of Avatar features highly charged soldiers being briefed by a blond-haired, blue-eyed thunderouslytestosteroned military commander who in a barrage of bigoted bursts refers to the indigenous natives as “savages… who shoot arrows.”

Such a reference is eerily similar to references by then president Andrew Jackson of Native- Americans during the American historical era known as “Jacksonian Democracy” or “Manifest Destiny.” During the 1840’s and 1850’s United States Calvary soldiers were essentially given approval to “remove” Native Americans in order to secure land and the minerals (gold) underneath. In fact, the life of the indigenous peoples of the American west were so devalued that the phrase “an Indian’s life was not worth ‘one red cent’”. The value placed on greed and military might over sharing and moral right in Avatar is based on the predicate of cultural disrespect. Equally shameful to the military commander’s bigotry is the highly educated civilian director of operations who—as many “liberal-minded” analysts do today— decries that, in spite of the natives’ rich cultural, ecological, spiritual, and moral society, “…we give them education, money, and a new place to live.” In a religious context, the director of operations’ Christian references of “Jesus Christ” belittles the holistic religious practices of the native people. In one scene he says: “…my God, these ‘people’ are primitive and worship trees…” Sound familiar to today’s American occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan? Sadly, far too many social commentators paternalistically view “gifts” of education and social programs to the denied and dispossessed as consideration for exploitative and imperialist actions. Even the professorial character of Sigourney Weaver’s pursuit of scientific truths is negated by her acceptance of the might is right paradigm. She ignores the unrighteousness of the military mission only for her “scientific discoveries.”

In addition to the movie Tarzan, Avatar cuts and pastes from previous movies such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. In each, a nice White guy is anointed as king of the natives to save them. If we are to truly be the United States of America, popular culture in movies must reflect cross-cultural respect. Inclusion and a shared ethos must be the order of the day. Specifically, the Motion Picture Association should, not withstanding First Amendment rights, incentivize movie directors to at least base movies on the concept that, in the words of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, “difference does not mean deficiency.” African-Americans and most people of color in the United States are undervalued for their intelligence, culture, and world view. If not, American society is doomed to the same fate of the “sky people” in Avatar.

Gary L. Flowers is executiv e director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum.

Access to College: A Promise to Keep

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I am no preacher. But this month I will stand at a church pulpit, before thousands of families and students with the message: college can transform a person's life.

Finding the pathway to college can be tough. That’s why students stand a better chance when parents and family members help them in the planning for university admission. This planning must start as early as middle school. At this early state, students should enroll in challenging classes that prepare them for college.

This message will echo in 100 predominantly African American churches in almost 40 California cities over the course of several Sundays. It will be delivered by university presidents, members of the board of trustees, the chancellor and other speakers from the California State University’s 23 campuses.

We will be enlisting the support of entire communities to help us get students on track, prepared to enter and succeed in college. Accompanying us will be admissions counselors and others who will help explain the steps necessary to get into a CSU campus.

This outreach effort, called Super Sunday, is no small task. It depends on a dedicated core of staff and volunteers, both from the university and our church partners. Begun five years ago in two dozen churches, it is the most prominent part of the CSU’s broader African American Initiative.

As the initiative reaches out, the community is responding. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of African American students applying for freshman admission at CSU campuses increased 78 percent; and undergraduate enrollment by African American students increased 20 percent.

These are important measures and motivators. But look beyond the numbers.

Consider the individual students whose lives are being changed by their CSU education. I take heart in the story of Tanisha Washington, a CSU Long Beach student. After her father's sudden death, Tanisha, her two siblings and disabled mother lived in poverty. For a time they lived on Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles.

In 2009, Tanisha received a highly competitive CSU Hearst/Trustees' scholarship.

She now uses her life experience and education to help the visually impaired individuals and children living in poverty. She, too, will be one of the CSU’s Super Sunday messengers.

Tanisha demonstrates the power of access to public higher education – what happens when people are given the opportunity and tools to make a difference.

How far she has come is a measure of how far we have come. Fifty years ago California, with its Master Plan for Higher Education, began a revolutionary notion: to make quality higher education affordable and accessible to all Californians. The progress and prosperity created by that framework have transformed our society in truly amazing ways, fostering upward mobility for generations who might formerly been left behind. Yet, recent economic challenges demonstrate how vulnerable that framework may be.

The CSU African America Initiative is working to keep it strong. In addition to Super Sunday, the ongoing initiative includes Summer Algebra Institutes, Train the Trainer workshops, and Super Saturday education fairs. It continues to seek new ways to educate youth and parents about the value of a college degree and the steps to get to college. (More information is online at http://www.calstate.edu/supersunday.)

Recently, the CSU also launched a bold plan to increase graduation rates at all of its campuses, with a particular focus on clearing hurdles faced by minority and low income students on the path toward graduation. In doing so, the CSU will continue to confront the so-called achievement gap between groups of students and to seek ways to close it.

It further underscores the CSU’s firm commitment to the communities of California: to stand with you, as your university, to meet the needs of present and future generations, and to help students plan ahead for higher education. It is a promise we will make from 100 pulpits throughout Super Sunday. We know that – with the help of parents, pastors, coaches, teachers, tutors, aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors—it is a promise we can keep.

Dr. Anthony Ross is Vice President for Student Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles. He is also sy stemwide coordinator for the California State University's African American Initiative.

Celebrating Black History

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As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I would like to invite us all to consider what African- American history means to our country, to our community, and to each of us as individuals.

For me, there are many touchstones, but often I think of a simple, heartbreaking statement I heard nearly three years ago: “They’re not going to let him win.” So I was told by an elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman who barely cracked open her front door in snowy Iowa when I knocked. I was there to help organize support for an African-American senator from Illinois who was running for President. Perfectly poised, the woman was impassive as she spoke past the chain still fastened to her door, maintaining the dignity that she had seen denied to so many others. For she remembered too well a time when water fountains and buses were a canvas for oppression, when the word “separate” drained all meaning from the word “equal.”

My generation is marked by different memories. When we think of struggle and injustice, we also remember a great man who taught us to dream. We remember walking arm-in-arm with an ever-growing community whose voices told a story of freedom, from neighborhood coalitions to the courtroom. I am a child of this time – my mother raised my sister and me in Oakland amidst marches for racial justice and equality.

When I first ran for office, there were those who said “no,” who said: “it’s too difficult,” or, “it’s not your turn.”

But I responded yes, the time is now and the time is right. And all across the country, my voice is just one part of a chorus of leaders committed to making that basic truth – that all men and women are created equal – more evident.

Soon, our children will know only a world in which a Black man named Barack Obama stood in the eyes of a nation and spoke these singular, American words: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States.” For all of the challenges we still face, our young people today are more free, and less marked by the past, than any generation before. And that makes our history all the more important, for these children will soon write the next chapters in our history of struggle, of redemption, of ever-growing justice. We do not know the history they will write. However, as Coretta Scott King reminds us, freedom is earned with each generation. In this renewal, it is not only history that helps us understand where we are today; where we are today also helps us revisit our history. And so, on a cold day in January 2008, I saw the elderly, quietly dignified African-American woman step into a caucus room in Iowa, joining cause with a generation of young people who had never learned that they could not do something. She re-wrote part of her story that day, and ours.

Make no mistake, there is much work still left to do. From our criminal justice system, to the mortgage crisis, to health care, to education, we face challenges that demand the courage and innovation of the civil rights generation. These challenges are more diverse than ever. But so are the solutions – today, more than ever before, we can empower people to work together across boundaries towards positive change, real solutions, and the promise of our great nation. And that must be our work, not only to honor history but to make history.

As I reflect and celebrate Black History Month, I recognize that it is, in some ways, none of those things. It is not only Black – it is the history of our country and of our world, it is all of ours. It is not only history – it is a story that we are still writing, it is our future. And it is not only a month – let us make it a reminder for every day, every week, and every month.

Kamala Harris is District Attorney of San Francisco.

Black History Month Marks Launch of National Urban League Centennial Celebration

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This year, Black History Month coincides with a historic milestone of the National Urban League: our 100th anniversary. Fittingly, this year's theme, "The History of Black Economic Empowerment," tracks the organization's century-long mission.

The National Urban League was founded in 1910 to address the needs of African Americans migrating north from the Jim Crow South in search of jobs and a better life. Unfortunately, one hundred years later, the doors of opportunity are not yet fully opened to people of color. And history remains one of our greatest teachers. As President Obama said in his historic 2008 speech on race, "…So many of the disparities that exist in the African American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow…That legacy helps explain the wealth and income gap between Black and white and the concentrated pockets of poverty that persist in so many of today's urban and rural communities."

But in spite of tremendous odds, African Americans have made remarkable contributions to America and continue to embrace Dr. King's dream.

Highlighting those largely unheralded contributions has always been the purpose of Black History Month.

While our centennial year is also a time to reflect on the rich history and legacy of the National Urban League, these times call for action. We want to use this moment to rally the American people to join with us in tackling some of the most pressing and persistent problems facing our nation. To that end, we have chosen Black History Month to announce the launch of our national public service initiative, I AM EMPOWERED, which will officially kick-off on March 1. Focused on four aspirational goals for America in the areas of education, employment, housing and healthcare, I AM EMPOWERED will galvanize millions of people to take a pledge to help achieve the following by 2025: Education - Every American child is ready for college, work and life.

Jobs - Every American has access to jobs with a living wage and good benefits.

Housing - Every American lives in safe, decent, affordable and energy efficient housing on fair terms.

Healthcare - Every American has access to quality and affordable health care solutions.

Black History Month 2010 also marks one year that America's first African American president has been in office. President Obama's election and the I AM EMPOWERED initiative remind us of the power of individual and collective citizen action to bring about change.

We will announce further details of the campaign in the coming weeks, including a website where you can pledge to work with us to achieve our four empowerment goals.

As we start our celebration of Black History Month and the 100th anniversary of the National Urban League, I urge every American to claim your empowerment and become a part of this exciting movement for change.

Marc Morial is president and CEO of The Black Leadership forum.

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