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Is Black History Month getting watered down?

While the concept of Black History Month has been widely embraced in pop culture, does it mean some of the nation's most bitter history also is getting watered down into cliches?
/ Source: The Associated Press

Black History Month: Come February, the now-familiar observance seems to inspire ever more — and ever more random — celebrations.

The players are both big and small. Multinational corporations mount billboard campaigns, while community centers hold fashion shows and tourist spots highlight their connection to black history.

But does saturation equal success?

While the concept of Black History Month has been widely embraced in pop culture, it means some of the nation's most bitter history also is getting watered down into cliches or irrelevance. Some events have no historical tie-in at all — they're merely topics of interest to African-Americans. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, black history is used as a kind of commercial brand, which can feel off-key.

"It has become very mainstream," said Sheri Parks, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. "I do think it's been diluted. Some of this seems like an excuse to put things on sale."

At Drexel University in Philadelphia, February events range from panel discussions about affirmative action and self-segregation on campus to a black art sale and an African American Down-Home Soul Food Dinner.

In Maryland's Prince George's County, there's Black History Magic, African Jewelry Making and a Black History Cheerleading Show.

A new-age center in Oakland, Calif., offered Mindful Drumming for Opening Minds and Healing Hearts and the University of Cincinnati's United Black Student Association has planned an event about online privacy titled "Has Facebook gone too far?"

Is this black history?
Though well-intentioned, the events are probably not what historian Carter G. Woodson had in mind when he created Negro History Week in 1926. He taught for decades that blacks must know their past before they could envision a brighter future.

By 1976, his organization, now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, had turned the week into Black History Month.

"The resistance was tremendous all over the country," said Maurice Thornton, a historian at the State University of New York at Albany. "There was a countervailing group who were doing their best to erase black history from the general public."

They lost the battle
This month, Thornton said he gave a black history speech at the local office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. "They're reaching out and want to let the world know that they're not just the old folks who tap your phones like they did during the civil rights era," he said.

Each night this month, there are several black history television programs to choose from — from BET's "Tupac: Thug Angel" to "Inside the Actors Studio" featuring two-hour interviews with Diana Ross and Eddie Murphy.

Veers into caricature
President Bush marked the month by holding a ceremony honoring modern-day black heroes including a New York City construction worker who saved a man from an oncoming subway train and an Olympic skier who lost her leg.

Black History Month "does caricature itself at times," said Linda Symcox, author of "Whose History?: The Struggle for National Standards in American Classrooms," about revising American history to include minority groups. Though she believes the month is a good thing overall, she said some events cross the line.

"If I were an African-American, I would be offended by having the month of February be some kind of palliative," she said.

Super Bowl, super opportunity
Proof that corporate America has discovered Black History Month came Feb. 4, when the Super Bowl for the first time featured two African-American coaches, Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith.

Both the broadcast of the game itself and ads between the action featured numerous references to the NFL first. Frito Lay had a commercial showing black families bonding over a football game with an announcer's voice saying, "We've got more than a game here. We've got history."

One Coca-Cola commercial played a blues piano melody and listed key moments in black history alongside a soda bottle, ending with: "Coca-Cola celebrates Black History. Especially today."

Some viewers said it was a fitting nod to Black History Month. "It was done well — it was subtle," said Lawrence C. Ross, a consumer strategist for Iconoculture, a consumer trend research company in Los Angeles. Other commercials, however, tended to be "ham-handed."

Parks felt there were too many ads highlighting black history. "With the first one, I smiled," she said. "By the third one, I wasn't smiling anymore. I wondered if they were exploiting (black history) and why."

Price of success? Commercialism
But, she added, commercialism is inevitable in American culture. "It's unrealistic in this culture to say that Black History Month should be noncommercial. This is how we do it."

Indeed, this month, you can even take a vacation linked to black history.

At Christopher's B&B in Bellevue, Ky., tourists can pay $137 per night for their National Underground Railroad Freedom Center package, which includes a stay in a "junior jacuzzi room" and two adult tickets to the nearby museum.

The promotion is part of a push by to steer visitors toward 14 historic homes that have connections to the secret network that once helped slaves escape to freedom, said Sandy Soule, editor of the Web site.

"This is the first year we've done this," Soule said. "I think we're going to make this a tradition."