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)

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 Online Here

Every February the nation comes together to celebrate the achievements of Africans and African-Americans to the world.

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.

In 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.

As 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.

In 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 1999.

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 schools.

My 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.

The 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.

My 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.

I 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.

To 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

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 Online Here

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.

My 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 poets.

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."

"So 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 project?

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"?

I 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.

A 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 racial stereotypes.

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."

Why 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 States?

If 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.

My 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 is.

As 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.

I 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 time.

So 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 judged.

So 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.

What Black History Month Means to me: A white historian learns to broaden his perspective

By Michael Aubrecht Online Here

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 themselves.

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.

As 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 biracial colleagues.

It 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.

I 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 time.

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 Cemetery.

The 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 1960.

The 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.

It 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 destiny.

Michael Aubrecht is an author and historian from Spotsylvania County. Visit his Web site at




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