The only black county commissioner in Dallas, John Wiley Price spoke Monday to 100 mostly black middle school students about history, responsibility and their futures. If he had been invited the following day _ Feb. 1 _ he would have refused.
That's not because of a scheduling conflict. Price no longer makes public appearances during Black History Month. Like some other top speakers, Price has grown weary of being in high demand for a just few weeks and then often ignored.
"I'm not going to be 'pimped'"
"I'm not going to be, as the kids say, 'pimped' during the month of February," Price said.
A few years ago, Price said, he was inundated with speaking requests. Then he realized that "black people were visible during February, but the other 11 months of the year we became the invisible people."
He isn't a lone rebel: Twenty-nine years after Black History Month was officially designated by the federal government, something of a backlash has begun.
Though February is still an exhilarating time for many high-profile black Americans, whose research and life experiences are celebrated, others see it as overwhelming, even debilitating.
They grow bleary-eyed, traveling almost daily, giving keynote addresses, participating in symposiums and moderating panels. And their physical exhaustion highlights an unsavory reality: Come March 1, public interest in them and their work plummets.
"Black history being confined to that month is more aggravating than ameliorating," said Larry Aubry, a columnist with the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black weekly, who worked on the Los Angeles County Human Relations Commission for 34 years. "There's no commitment there. I'm looking for more in the full 12 months."
Black History Month has roots in historian Carter G. Woodson's Negro History Week, which he designated in 1926 as the second week in February to mark the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Woodson, who also began the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, said he hoped the week could one day be eliminated _ when black history would become fundamental to American history.
Now his idea has been expanded to include all of February, a month when there are seemingly nonstop television programs, art exhibits, films, historical tours, new books and public lectures. Attendance at black museums and historical sites also mushrooms, and even the list of events with no historical tie appears to be growing.
For instance, the Baltimore County public schools will participate in National African American Parent Involvement Day on Feb. 14. That day, the University of Akron in Ohio has planned a public dialogue titled "Brothers Talking to Brothers: Let's Talk _ Relationships with Black Women." Last year, the Bronx Zoo highlighted its African animals.
"An industry has grown up around (Black History Month) which is really quite fascinating," said Nell Irvin Painter, a Princeton historian. Like Kwanzaa, she said, "It became a corporate holiday, a way for corporations and museums and the U.S. postal service to declare they're multicultural bona fide."
Painter no longer accepts invitations to events pegged to the month, however, because they typically come from groups that "want to hear the same old thing, very often." She spoke Thursday at Wesleyan University on her forthcoming book, "The History of White People," but agreed because it was part of the campus's yearlong program, Conversations on Race.
It should continue
Still, despite their misgivings about Black History Month, Painter and others think it should continue. The reason: They believe black history would become even more marginalized without it.
"I can't tell you how important it was for me, growing up, to hear from people who looked like me about their successes, their aspirations, their trials and things they were able to overcome," said Carolyn McKinstry, who was in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., when it was bombed by the Ku Klux Klan in 1963, killing four young girls.
Though she has declined at least a dozen speaking invitations for this month, she has agreed to a few, events where "the message will be needed and will make more of an impact on listeners," she said.
If speakers don't choose their venues carefully, Black History Month lectures can become "kinds of performances. They're not necessarily intended to solve problems," said Robin D. G. Kelley, a professor of African American Studies at Columbia University. "They're enlightening and interesting. It's enlightened entertainment, which is not a bad thing."
Whereas he once traveled nonstop in February, Kelley declined about 100 invitations this month _ all except three at which he'll speak to youth: "Just when I'm about to get cynical, I give a talk and I have such great engagements with the community and students. People are hungry for a conversation, and I can't be too cynical because I remember that hunger myself as a young person."