- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 23, 2003

Alan Elder remembers how his mother struggled, alone, day after day and year after year to raise her four children. She struggled to keep the lights on and the bills paid and to provide her children with a little something extra, opportunities to succeed that couldn't be funded in any way except through her sweat.

His mother, Madeline P. Elder, would tell her children stories about how she and her brothers and sisters had not been permitted to attend certain schools, schools for white students, says Mr. Elder, a 35-year-old college graduate and sales engineer who lives in Fort Washington.

"She also told us, 'Although times have changed, we still struggle to get the type of employment and education needed to survive in today's world,' " he says. "She would tell us, 'These are some of the same things our ancestors struggled with during the Reconstruction period.'

"She gave us a strong sense of family, and she always encouraged us to learn more about our heritage."

To many blacks, the words "our heritage" invoke injustice served, exclusion practiced and opportunity denied, but they also embody conviction, tradition, accomplishment and optimism.

The annual observance in February of Black History Month celebrates the experiences and achievements of many, but the month just highlights the year-round efforts of many area families to incorporate black history and culture into their framework.

Mr. Elder says he and his wife, Kym, teach sons Alan Jr., 11, and Aaron, 5, lessons about the past "to give them a sense of belonging to something much greater than themselves."

"It gives them an understanding that they can be whatever they want to be," he says. "They do have a rich heritage, and whatever doors that might have been closed are definitely open now and will remain open as long as they're productive members of society. I want them to see what we're capable of doing."

The roots of history

Educator and historian Carter G. Woodson built the foundation of Black History Month upon the achievements of blacks. In 1926, his seed of an idea to bear witness to a factual history long ignored by textbooks took root with the recognition of black history during the second week of February.

He chose the time of year, designated Negro History Week, for its proximity to the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, two persons closely linked to the destiny of black people.

Mr. Woodson believed that if people truly understood the rich contributions of blacks to their country, the result would be mutual respect among all Americans, explains Barbara Spencer Dunn, executive assistant for the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), a nonprofit organization based in Silver Spring.

"One of Dr. Woodson's goals was racial harmony," she says. "That is one of the main reasons we continue to celebrate black history like this. His goal was that no race of people would have to bring attention to themselves like this, but until we get to another place, it's still necessary."

In 1976, the weeklong celebration officially expanded into a monthlong observance, marked annually via a national theme established by the ASALH. This year's theme, "The Souls of Black Folk: Centennial Reflections," dovetails W.E.B. Du Bois' 1903 treatise, "The Souls of Black Folk," with reflections on the current state of black people.

Black History Month is observed in local schools and churches, in community-center auditoriums, museums and theaters. There are scholarly presentations, poetry, art, songs, dramatic performances and community forums "a great embarrassment of riches," says Audrey Davis, assistant director and curator at the Alexandria Black History Resource Center, which offers a smorgasbord of activities.

"It's just amazing how much is out there during this one-month period," Ms. Davis says. "Now, more than ever, we need an appreciation for different cultures and different people and an understanding of what makes us a great country. It's not a hard thing to incorporate into our lives it serves as a reinforcement of positive images, but while we love and appreciate Black History Month, we wish it were more than just the 28 days of February."

Ongoing celebration

Monica and Eric Utsey say they celebrate Black History Month "every day of our lives."

The Northeast Washington couple are raising their 3-year-old son, Zion, to be "African-centered," says Mrs. Utsey, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother and free-lance writer. "That means we've tried to be very conscious of the fact that in this society, we're a minority. That can affect a child's self-esteem because he feels he doesn't belong."

For example, the Utseys share with their son books that contain images that resemble him or neutral images such as animals, Mrs. Utsey says.

Whenever they labor to explain a concept to Zion, they make sure it is framed "from an African perspective instead of from the perspective of the majority's worldview," she says.

Mr. and Mrs. Utsey are introducing their son to figures in black history via books, videos, coloring pages, museum visits and events at their church, Union Temple Baptist in Southeast.

In addition, Mrs. Utsey is president of the District's Southern chapter of Mocha Moms, a national support group for mothers.

"I don't think I'd be a good parent if I didn't teach my son about his history and the African-American contributions," she says. "I know he's only 3, but we want him to know where he fits into the picture."

Alexandria resident Angela Moore says she and her husband, Erroll, also view black culture and history as a year-round learning opportunity for children Gabrielle, 4, and Micah, 2.

"It's something that's built into our daily life," she says. "The main point is that [my children] will know that they have come from a very rich heritage and very rich culture, and they will be secure in their identity."

To underscore this conviction, the Moores frequently browse black-centered exhibits at art and history museums. The "From Slavery to Freedom" display at the American History Museum is a favorite. They check their local library for videos that focus on black history. They read books about Harriet Tubman, Richard Wright and Frederick Douglass.

They research genealogy, get together with family members to trade information and strengthen traditions and study geography, learning about African countries and their populations.

Mrs. Moore, a 31-year-old stay-at-home mother and former lawyer, has introduced her daughter to her family tree via a cherished album that traces the roots with photographs and written descriptions. It contains an account of Gabrielle's great-great-great-great grandmother Matilda, who was a slave in Farmville, Va., during the early 1800s.

Mrs. Moore says she intends to take her family to visit Farmville to locate the log cabin in which her grandmother was born or at least the land remaining there.

"History cannot hold my children back," she says. "It can encourage them and give them more strength. … I can see them do nothing but succeed and be strong citizens … knowing a sense of obligation to improve and help people in the world around them."

Speaking out

American history has chronicled the success of foremost abolitionist Frederick Douglass, recognizing the brilliant orator's vast contributions to human rights.

Eighth-grader Brian Forehand Jr. of Hyattsville has found a mentor, of sorts, in Mr. Douglass. Every year, the District's Frederick Douglass National Historical Site hosts an oratorical contest for children in which participants are invited to recite excerpts from Douglass speeches.

Brian first entered the competition in 1999, at age 8. He won first prize. In 2001, he again swept the competition. Last year, he took the second-place award, and this year, the blue ribbon was his once again.

"If I look at the things that people before me have done, I might be inspired to better myself or live up to the expectations that were given to me by my ancestors or the people before me who accomplished great things like Frederick Douglass," Brian says.

Why study black history and culture?

"I think it's so important for children to know that there were, and are, people that look exactly like them who have done marvelous things and who have done so much more with so much less, as well," says Brian's mother, Kimberly Forehand.

"For any kid, it's got to be amazing how someone like Frederick Douglass taught himself not just to read and write, but to orate with speeches that even today you need a dictionary to understand. … To me, that's an awesome feat," she says.

Mrs. Forehand, 38, a claims examiner, says she and her husband, Brian Forehand Sr., collectively seek information about black culture and history. They visit museums as a family, which also includes daughter Danielle, 5. They search for books heralding accomplished black people, especially inventors. They listen to black news talk radio "although I listen to what everybody says," she adds. "I listen to Rush Limbaugh, as well."

The Forehands also expose their children to District residents whom Mrs. Forehand describes as black trailblazers.

"Knowing how far 'our race' has come from the days of Frederick Douglass to now we've come so far and even under the worst of circumstances it happened with perseverance and a can-do attitude," she says. " 'No' was not an option for them. That attitude is important for my children and other black children today. There's no room for 'no' or 'can't' not with all they have to work with today. There's no excuse."


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