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Black History Month Raises Issues of How We Remember the Past, Think About the Future, Duke Professors Say

The observance of Black History Month is less edgy today than in the past, partly because Americans' collective memory of racially charged historical events has become a sanitized, feel-good version of the Civil Rights movement, according to Duke University experts in black culture and American history.

And, as Americans consider the significance of Black History Month, they need to recognize that the simple dynamic of black and white no longer reflects the complicated racial makeup of American society, added a Duke sociologist.

Historian Tim Tyson said Americans remember the Civil Rights era as a"self-congratulatory fable that is soothing, moving and politically acceptable," but bears"no resemblance to what actually happened." He said Martin Luther King's radical message of economic and political justice has been replaced in the popular memory with an image of Dr. King as"an innocuous black Santa Claus, genial and vacant, a man who wanted us to be nice to one another."

Tyson, a visiting professor and scholar at Duke and a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of"Blood Done Sign My Name," a memoir about a 1970 lynching in Tyson's hometown of Oxford, N.C.

Mark Anthony Neal, associate professor of black popular culture at Duke, said that Black History Month has become watered down over the years. Chain stores decorate with Black History Month-themed posters, publishers put out books on African-American subjects and high-profile black speakers are in high demand for a short space of time in February, he noted.

"Black History Month has become part of the marketing of the idea of multiculturalism and pluralism in the United States," Neal said."It's a selling point, not necessarily a lived reality."

Duke sociology research professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva said Americans need to not only acknowledge the real struggles and conflict of the Civil Rights era, but face up to the racial realities of today.

"First, we must acknowledge that blacks, despite the advances made in the 1960s and 1970s, lag still well behind whites in almost all social indicators," said Duke sociology research professor Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, who specializes in the study of racial stratification in the United States."Second, we must also realize that the face of the nation has become increasingly more brown."

The bulk of this new Latino population is fast joining the ranks of the working poor and, thus, socially, economically and symbolically becoming"black-like," Bonilla-Silva said. But a small segment of the Latino population -- usually Latinos with lighter skin -- are treated as"honorary whites" by white America, and are more accepted and assimilated, he said.

"The historical black-white divide may remain, but it may become more complex and even add a little bit of gray in the middle," he said."Thus, in this year's Black History Month celebration, we may want to take account of both the new `black-like,' as well as the `honorary white,' segments of the Latino population, and examine the role they will play in the future of America."

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