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A Quest to End Black History Month: A Preview of More Than a Month on PBS

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A Preview of More Than a Month on PBS

A New Documentary Explores the Impact of Black History Month

Filmmaker Shukree Tilghman wearing protest sign in Harlem. Photo Courtesy of Antonio CatonWith its origins dating back to 1926, Black History Month has served as a national observance of the history of African American culture. Originally referred to as “Negro History Week” by historian Carter G. Woodson, there has been controversy for decades over the delegation of one month (in this case February, the shortest month) to celebrate the vast contributions of one race of people. Other critics claim that even though the emphasis is on black history, it should be considered American history and not subject to any form of racial classification, therefore undermining the contributions of African Americans.

A new documentary aims to examine the importance of Black History Month. Airing in February, 2012, More than a Month, is filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s examination on the treatment of history, race and power in contemporary America and a goal to free black history from the confines of February to ensure that it is considered as year-round, mainstream American history.

One question the film seeks to answer is whether Black History Month is exploitive, or is it instrumental in reminding the public about the contributions of African Americans? Despite the fact that we currently have an African American president, Black History Month has become a traditional observance, where we embrace the contributions of African Americans such as Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, Duke Ellington, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr.,…yet those contributions are oftentimes ignored the remaining eleven months of the year.

Originating in Washington D.C., Tilghman and producer Owen Cooper traveled the US during February 2010, where he sought to explore the implications of Black History Month and gained numerous perspectives on how the month itself has been perceived over time through interviews with black leaders, academics, people in the street, and even his parents.

“What would it mean if Black History Month were no more?” asks Tilghman. “Would black history itself disappear, never to be seen again? Or would it pave the way for a fervent new mission to ensure the inclusion of black history in education and society in all months?”

One theory is that African American culture has in fact been diminished by delegating it to just one month, and that, according to Tilghman “some say that the continued exposure of African American history can happen while maintaining the celebration of black history in February… but I also think the time for that has passed. February is so synonymous with anything “black,” that groups from television programmers to grocery stores to community institutions cannot resist the practice of using February as the month to do their “black” thing…”

Director Shukree Tilghman in Philadelphia. Photo Courtesy of Thiago Da CostaThrough this first-person narrative, Tilghman discusses the issue with members of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (who appear horrified by his suggestion), Harvard University professor James Sidanius (where Tilghman participates in a psychological study examining how Black History Month affects blacks and whites and their place in American history on a personal level) and Lewis Williams of Burrell Communications (the  largest African American owned ad agency in the US), where he investigates whether corporate sponsorship and advertisements during Black History Month are merely an excuse to sell products to black consumers.

Tilghman also interviewed members of a Lexington, Virginia-based Sons of Confederate Veterans chapter, who are intent on creating a Confederate History Month (an unofficial observation that is celebrated in April in seven southern states). Finally, Tilghman speaks with school officials in Philadelphia, which, in 2005, became the only school district in the country to mandate a black history requirement for graduation.

Much of the context of More than a Month relates to how our perception of black history has been accepted over time. Tilghman argues that the idea that ‘we need to have it at all speaks to a social failure to recognize that black history is American history, period.’

More than a Month airs this month on PBS as part of the critically acclaimed series “Independent Lens.” Visit The Independent Television Service (ITVS) website for listings and to see clips from the film. The filmmakers have also developed “More Than a Map(p),” a smartphone application that uses a phone’s GPS to point users in the direction of the nearest location relevant to African American History. The app will include text, video, audio, and links to more information and will be available on iTunes in February 2012.

Dave Bower is Co-Publisher of The Free George. Photos Courtesy of Antonio Caton and Thiago Da Costa

The Free George is the online magazine and visitors’ guide of Upstate NY, covering things from Albany to Lake Placid, including Saratoga, the Lake George region and the Adirondacks. Check out our City Blogs section for our extended coverage areas as well.

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