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Black History Month kicks off in the city

Cyril Josh Barker | 2/6/2014, 12:39 a.m.
Artwork by Elton Leonard Jr., artist and AmNews graphic designer www.eltonleonard.com

Last Saturday, the beginning of African-American History Month was marked with several events across the city and nation to kick off the month-long celebration. This year’s theme is “Civil Rights in America” in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

According to the Association for the Study of African Life and History (ASALAH), the organization started by Carter G. Woodson, who created African-American History Month, this year’s celebration should concentrate on the history of civil rights in the United States after African-Americans were freed from slavery.

“From the nation’s origins, Americans believed that religion should not be a basis for abridging a citizen’s rights, but very few believed color should be treated similarly,” ASALAH said in its annual executive summary. “And gender and sexual orientation were not even open for discussion. The resulting struggles over civil rights have remade our nation for more than two centuries.”

In a proclamation, President Barack Obama said the month should honor African-Americans who have claimed rights long denied them, such as the engineers of the Underground Railroad, educators who answered a free people’s call for a free mind and Black Americans who have served in the nation’s armed forces.

“Every American can draw strength from the story of hard-won progress, which not only defines the African-American experience, but also lies at the heart of our nation as a whole,” he said. “This story affirms that freedom is a gift from God, but it must be secured by his people here on earth. It inspires a new generation of leaders, and it teaches us all that when we come together in common purpose, we can right the wrongs of history and make our world anew.”

Locally, Mayor Bill de Blasio and first lady Chirlane McCray emphasized the need for New Yorkers to know about the state’s own African-American history, with slaves first arriving to the state in 1626.

“The beginning of African-American History Month is a chance for all New Yorkers to celebrate the legacy of not only those African-American heroes memorialized on statues and street signs around our city—Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman and Jackie Robinson—but also those whose names have been forgotten, even as their unsung sacrifices continue to bear fruit,” said de Blasio.

ASALAH’s New York state branch hosted its annual African-American History Month Proclamation Ceremony at United Christian Baptist Church in the Bronx last Saturday. CUNY professor William E. Henry was the keynote speaker, and African drummers Shaka & Company performed, along with a reading by Lehman College student Abiel Wilson.

The organization objects to the term “Black History Month,” and, according to ASALAH State Director Bessie Jackson, “African-American History Month” should be used instead.

“History has no color,” she said. “If it can’t be seen, it can’t be Black. History is as colorless as the wind, yet as real as the air we breathe. The term ‘Black History’ does not identify or recognize a people.”