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WGBH tackles old question in new film

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WGBH tackles old question in new film

One recent February, African American filmmaker Shukree Hassan Tilghman decided to try something a little out of the ordinary — start a petition to end Black History Month.

Armed with a homemade sandwich board scrawled with the slogans, “End Black History Month” and “Black History is American History,” Tilghman ventured into Times Square in New York City to collect as many signatures as he could. Predictably, most passersby were unimpressed with his proposition.

Tilghman documents his yearlong adventure wrestling with Black History Month in the new film, “More Than a Month”—which premieres tonight, Feb. 16, on PBS at 10 p.m. — showing, often humorously, the complexities of this 36-year old tradition.

“I was inspired by my own childhood, growing up with Black History Month,” Tilghman told the Banner about his motivation for making the film. “Black History Month started around 1976, and I was born in 1979, so as I come of age, so does Black History Month.”

Black History Month has its origins in 1926, when Carter G. Woodson, who is often called the “father of black history,” inaugurated Negro History Week on the second week in February to commemorate the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Fifty years later, under President Gerald Ford, Negro History Week was officially expanded into a month long celebration.

“I really loved Black History Month when I was a kid,” the filmmaker continued. “The people that were brought up were like superheroes to me — I was very prideful of it. It wasn’t until I got older that it seemed like the same song and dance every year; the same posters put up on the wall. I saw corporations get involved, and ads, and I didn’t know how I felt about it. It always seemed to have a condescending tone — that it hadn’t been fully accepted as American history.”

In the film, Tilghman crisscrosses the country, talking to experts, educators, ad men and activists about the place of African American history in American history — and even conducts his own psychology experiment with the help of a Harvard professor to assess how people value black history.

In one of the most interesting scenes of the film, Tilghman travels to Lexington, Va., where he speaks with the descendants of Confederate soldiers who are pushing for a statewide Confederate History Month. “Now, am I into the Confederate people? No,” he said. “But it was an enlightening way to experience the importance of history months, because, as I say in the movie, history months must be important because people who don’t have them really fight to get them. But what’s more, I found, is that it’s a way to control the story.”

This scene gets to the heart of Tilghman’s point — history, any history, is about the power to tell your side of the story. African Americans have long been denied this power and Black History Month is just another manifestation, not a cure, of this condition. For Tilghman, equality is the full recognition that African American history is American history.

To show an alternative to February-only black history, Tilghman then goes to Philadelphia, home to the only public school district in the country that makes African American history a high school graduation requirement. After parents and school officials sparred for nearly 40 years over whose history was being taught to students, in 2005, the district — which serves 185,000 students, two-thirds of whom are black — announced a mandatory, yearlong African American history course.

“I don’t think it’s a perfect solution — it’s still a separate class,” Tilghman said. “But it’s a step along the way, and it sends a powerful message.”

In the end, Tilghman rips up the sandwich board and petition, and tosses the pieces in a dumpster. “Ending Black History Month is where the film begins, but it’s not where it ends,” he said. “Should we or shouldn’t we have Black History Month is a question that we can’t have — we’d just go in circles. I hope with the film people think about this issue a little deeper, and think of two things: What does it mean that we have a Black History Month in 2012? Does it mean that the stories of African Americans are still terribly lacking in schools — and if that’s true, shouldn’t we do something about it?”

“And secondly, what would it mean if we didn’t have a Black History Month?” he continued. “What would the conditions have to be to make us comfortable putting Black History Month aside? And let’s do that. Let’s endeavor to create that situation. That’s what Dr. Woodson would have wanted.”

“More Than a Month,” written, directed and produced by Shukree Hassan Tilghman, will air on WGBH 44, Feb.16, at 10 p.m.