WGBH tackles old question in new film

Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil | 2/14/2012, 5:44 p.m.
One recent February, African American...

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.