WHAT BLACK HISTORY MONTH MEANS TO
US: The inspiration for these three articles came
from a discussion I had with friend and author
Michael Aubrecht. We talked one day in November
about writing something for Black History Month in
which we would provide perspectives on the
significance of black history from a white man and
a black man. One of our mutual acquaintances wanted
to voice her opinion on the topic as well. Liane
DiStefano comes from a biracial heritage and she
brings not only a female voice, but a voice that
can speak from both sides of the coin. --
Christopher Williams (Free Lance-Star Town &
County: Date published: 2/14/2009)
Every February the nation comes
together to celebrate the achievements of Africans
and African-Americans to the world.
Part 1: BLACK
CONTRIBUTIONS OFTEN OVERLOOKED
What Black History Month Means to Me: As a
black man, it's a chance to learn about
and appreciate my heritage
By Christopher Williams
Although it is the shortest month
of the year, all of the contributions made by
people of color can't be covered in any one month.
Black history extends back to the time of the New
Kingdom in Egypt and the Kush kingdom in the Nile
River valley to the newly elected president of the
United States, Barack Obama. (The New Kingdom in
Egypt formed around the same time as the Kush
kingdom in 3000 B.C. The Kush kingdom at one point
spread across the entire continent of Africa and
parts of Asia and Europe.)
Before I proceed with this article
one person needs to be acknowledged for his
scholastic vision and providence, the great Carter
G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson, a native Virginian, is the
sole reason that the United States, Canada and
Great Britain acknowledge Black History Month.
1926, Woodson pioneered the celebration of Africans
and African-Americans when he started "Negro
History Week." During this time, it was designated
for the second week in February to coincide with
the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick
Douglass due to their influences of improving the
social conditions of African-Americans.
Negro History Week turned into
Black History Month in 1976 through the
perseverance of the Association for the Study of
Afro-American Life and History, an organization
Woodson founded in 1915.
a child, I learned about the plethora of
contributions made by George Washington, Thomas
Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. They, alongside
many others, were responsible for establishing the
United States of America. Their work is undeniable,
but without the contributions of enslaved Africans
and freed blacks it wouldn't have come to fruition.
Black History Month was the only
time I heard about the accomplishments of my
people. It was quite frustrating, because I often
wondered why our contributions were relegated to
the shortest month of the year.
1992, as a seventh-grader, I was given an
opportunity of a lifetime to learn more about my
culture when I was selected to become a James
Farmer Scholar. This is a program named in honor of
the illustrious civil rights activist Dr. James
Farmer Jr., who taught at the University of Mary
Washington in his later years. I had the distinct
pleasure of growing up down the street from where
he lived in Massaponax before his death in
Every other Saturday we would
convene at UMW with our fellow scholars from the
surrounding areas. We were divided into groups to
attend classes to enhance our knowledge about black
history as well as receive instruction on the
classes we took during the week at our individual
mother also played an instrumental role in my
formative years by providing a concrete foundation
for me to build my learning on. By the time I was a
junior in high school, I became heavily involved
with the Upward Bound program at UMW, where my
desire for black history became stronger.
summer before my senior year we went on a Southern
tour of the historically black colleges and
universities. The wealth of knowledge I received on
this trip shaped what I wanted to pursue once I
went off to college the following autumn.
During my senior year, I registered
for an African-American history class, but it paled
in comparison to the tutelage I was receiving in
the James Farmer Scholar program.
After being a student for two years
at Virginia Commonwealth University I was able to
focus on my degree major of mass communications and
my minor in African-American studies. It was here
where my mind digested an infinite amount about the
history of my people and the everlasting legacy of
the African influence across the globe.
professors provided inexhaustible amounts of
historical information in each one of my classes.
Dr. Morris Henderson, Dr. Jill Rowe, the late Dr.
Avon W. Drake, Dr. Christopher Brooks and Dr.
Bernard Moitt, along with countless others, are
people whom I thank for what they've given to me
over the years. It is because of them I have a
broader understanding of where I come from, who I
am, and where I'm going.
strongly encourage my African-American, Caucasian,
Hispanic and Asian brothers and sisters to expand
their minds and research more about black history
because it is not only American history, but it is
the world's history.
Here are some topics and people
that you can begin to research: the Arab slave
trade, the Sugar Revolution, marronage (runaway
slaves) abolition, Timbuktu, The Talented Tenth,
Stephen Biko, Bartolome de las Casas, Toussaint
L'Ouverture, David Walker, Joseph Cinque, Shaka,
Denmark Vesey and Eric Williams.
quote Marcus Garvey, "A people without the
knowledge of their past history, origin and culture
is like a tree without roots."
What does black history mean to me?
It means everything.
Christopher Williams is a
contributing writer for Town & County from
Spotsylvania County. Visit his Web site at
When I was a student in college, I
resented the recognition of Black History Month. Or
rather, I should say that I resented the necessity
of Black History Month, and something I experienced
in a college poetry class justified that sentiment
in my mind.
Part 2: SEEKING KNOWLEDGE
AND ACCEPTANCE IN A WHITE WORLD What Black
History Month Means to Me: Seeing both
sides as a biracial woman
By Liane Distefano
classmates and I had just finished performing a
"poetry theater," for which we recited poetic works
of our choosing and interpreted the poetry through
short skits. I was one of two biracial students in
the class, and there were perhaps three other black
students, and we all interpreted the works of black
When the entire class had
presented, our instructor gave his assessment of
the class's efforts, and he commented--not
maliciously, but expressing a surprise that I found
peculiar and offensive--"Every single one of the
black students chose black poets."
what!" I exclaimed in my head. Why was it really
necessary to point out that all the nonwhite
students had chosen to recognize nonwhite poets?
Did the instructor find it necessary to mention
that most white students chose white poets for the
What if a black child walked into
his elementary school classroom and said, after
looking at a carefully assembled bulletin board his
teacher may have put together in recognition of
Presidents Day, "There sure are a lot of white
people represented here"?
can't say for certain how many elementary school
teachers have experienced that, but I'll go out on
a limb and say very few, if any, have heard a black
child comment on all the white faces he or she
would see on a bulletin board of past presidents,
and this is because the black child is used to
seeing images of white faces reflected.
scan of the newsstands at the local bookstore
demonstrates this. White models grace the covers of
most fashion magazines. I rarely see the homes of
black families featured in the home-decorating
publications I love to read. And someone in
Hollywood is always decrying the shortage of meaty
roles for black actors that aren't modeled on
Further, the reading requirements
for American middle and high school students do not
include a comprehensive study of black authors. Why
was it that I wasn't introduced to "The Souls of
Black Folk" until I attended college? And the
pleasure of diving into a tale written by the
brilliant and, sadly, marginalized Zora Neale
Hurston! Surely "Their Eyes Were Watching God"
would have more relevance to a teenage girl--white,
black, Latina or other--than "Moby-Dick."
don't more young black students know that Olaudah
Equiano was an African author who wrote "The
Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah
Equiano, or Gustavus Vassa, the African" well
before the abolition of slavery in the United
we are to encourage the development of a strong and
self-assured generation of any ethnicity, then a
clear understanding of that generation's heritage
is necessary; therefore, we should incorporate more
works by black authors into the canon of literature
worthy of our children. And because we have not,
Black History Month is necessary.
purpose is not to propagate some conspiracy theory,
to assert that the exclusion of black authors is
purposeful. Rather, my goal is to illustrate what
nonwhites understand but not all whites do: that a
white-centric society will not be conscious of its
"whiteness" until someone possessing an undeniable
"otherness" is thrown into the mix and demands
recognition, not as others would see him, but as he
a biracial woman and the mother of
black-Italian-English-American Indian children
(whew!), it's a struggle even for me to remind my
children of the richness of their black-American
heritage, that it's not defined merely by
accomplished athletes and prolific rap artists.
came of age in the 1980s, and even then I was often
ridiculed by other children for my perceived lack
of "blackness"--curly hair that wouldn't be relaxed
and shaped into intricate, asymmetrical styles, or
a manner of speaking that wasn't considered hip
enough. It's sad that I was measured by standards
defined only by the black popular culture of the
even for me, with one foot in the world of white
America and one foot in the black, it was necessary
to delve into the richness of my black heritage in
order to fully embrace my ethnicity.
Perhaps if American schoolchildren
enjoyed a more comprehensive study of black history
in schools, my peers might have been able to see
past the superficial qualities by which I was often
what does Black History Month mean to me? It means
acceptance. It means self-realization. It means the
understanding that we all, of every ethnicity of
which our glorious country is composed, are the
beneficiaries of brave and illustrious black
Americans who came before us.
Liane DiStefano is a copy editor,
born in Georgia and raised and educated in
Virginia. She resides with her husband and two
children in Stafford County.
To this day, race relations in our
country remains one of the most controversial
issues with regard to historical interpretation.
American historians, in particular, have a unique
challenge because so many of our country's most
revered figures, including some of our nation's
Founding Fathers, were either neutral on the issue
of slavery or were practicing slaveholders
Part 3: 'MY' JEFFERSON
ISN'T 'THEIR' JEFFERSON
What Black History Month Means to me: A
white historian learns to broaden his
By Michael Aubrecht
Adding to this dilemma is the fact
that some of Virginia's wealthiest planters were
indeed troubled by the practice, despite the fact
that their fortunes had been acquired and
maintained on the backs of forced labor. We know
these inner conflicts existed, because many of
their personal writings exhibit a distinct moral
conflict that plagued their consciences. Perhaps no
one's legacy is as perplexing, regarding the
institution of slavery, than that of one of our
state's most celebrated sons, Thomas Jefferson.
my own research advanced deeper into the life of
Monticello's master, I found myself becoming
acutely aware of the stark differences between how
one may interpret the lives of our nation's notable
figures, and the interpretations of others.
Specifically, I discovered a completely different
point of view among my African-American and
seems that "my Jefferson" isn't at all like "their
Jefferson," and my experience when visiting his
magnificent estate is also very different from
their experience. I don't believe that this is due
to any insensitivity on my part, because I don't
approve of any form of racial inequality. However,
I do believe that it's because, as a white man, I
don't take the institution of slavery personally.
My ancestors were never victims of this injustice.
Therefore, when I examine the issue, I tend to
examine it from a distance.
Admittedly, growing up in western
Pennsylvania, my exposure to black history was
extremely limited in my youth. In fact, it was only
after I became a historian that I realized the gap
that existed in my own interpretations of America.
It was only when I began discussing Virginia's
history with colleagues of a different skin color
that I began to confront my own ignorance regarding
the subject of another's heritage.
This is why Black History Month has
become such an important event to me, not only as a
historian, but more importantly as an American.
would like to recommend that citizens of all colors
take some time during Black History Month to
explore our town's African-American history from
what may be an unfamiliar perspective. These are
just a few of the landmark moments in the 281-year
story of Fredericksburg:
Shiloh Baptist Church (Old Site),
which is located on Sophia Street, was sold to its
black congregation in 1857 by the resident white
church. Shortly after gaining its pseudo
independence, the church flourished, building a
large membership of both free and slave members.
After Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation
took effect, the congregation appointed its first
black pastor, the Rev. George Dixon. Following the
end of the Civil War, Shiloh's members worshipped
together as free men and women.
John De Baptiste, an
entrepreneurial black man from St. Kitts, lived on
Sophia Street and operated the local ferry to
Falmouth. His business flourished in the late 1700s
to the point that several of his children invested
in both the shipping and land speculation
businesses. De Baptiste was considered part of
Fredericksburg's elite citizenry and is said to
have owned two slaves of his own at one
Before the Civil War, the area
around Barton Street was known as "Liberty Town."
There, free African-Americans rented homes. Maury
School, which has since been converted into Maury
Commons, sits on what was originally a "colored
cemetery." When the large brick and stone
schoolhouse was built in the 1920s, those buried in
the area were exhumed and moved to Shiloh
Fredericksburg area was also home to one of the
most notable civil rights pioneers, who pushed for
nonviolent protest to dismantle segregation in the
South. James Farmer, who served alongside Martin
Luther King Jr., helped to establish the Committee
of Racial Equality. He was also instrumental in
forming the "Freedom Riders" who rode buses into
the segregated southern United States to test the
Supreme Court decision Boynton v. Virginia, in
Fredericksburg, Spotsylvania and Stafford areas are
richly saturated in history, and the diversity of
that history has been preserved for this and future
generations. Black History Month presents a perfect
platform for sharing these events.
is through these stories, the legacies of our
African-American brothers and sisters, that we can
enrich our own historical knowledge and broaden our
perspectives regarding our collective origins and
perhaps, more importantly, our shared
Michael Aubrecht is an author and
historian from Spotsylvania County. Visit his Web
site at pinstripepress.net.