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Bill Russell on Black History Month

I often wonder how many people ask themselves, "Do we really need a Black History Month?"

Although it seems inconceivable in this day and age, there still exists a great number of people who do not believe there should be an entire month devoted to African-American culture.

By questioning the relevance of Black History Month, people are questioning the value of African-American's contributions to society and accomplishments throughout the years. Although America has come a long way, I do not think it is a stretch to believe that many people believe African-Americans have not contributed enough to justify their own month.

Making matters even more complicated is the reality that our African-American youths do not recognize the importance of their history. We lack sufficient teaching of the rich contributions African-Americans have made to our country's growth, prosperity and evolution.

In my mind, Black History Month is an effective catalyst, an invitation to examine and reflect upon the achievements of African-Americans. The time period set aside for this reflection is brief -- merely one month -- but its value lies in its ability to capture people's attention, and offer insights that hopefully will last a lifetime.

My parents taught me many lessons when I was growing up. One of the most important was about respect. Respect comes from enlightenment, and enlightenment springs from education. We cannot expect the world to fully accept black history until people are properly educated on its importance to the world.

Despite the fact that Black Heritage Month began in 1926, our schools have fundamentally ignored the contributions African-Americans have made to world civilization. It was not until Black History Month became a school-focused event that it started receiving its proper recognition.

I think it would be accurate to say that myths and stereotypes of Blacks were perpetuated in our educational institutions. I remember in 5th grade, during our required daily hour of reading, a teacher recommended a book that left a lasting impression on me. The theme of the book suggested slaves were better off being slaves in the south than they were being free in Africa. Even as a 10-year old, I was stunned that such a falsehood would be foisted upon children in a classroom.

Although this episode occurred more than 60 years ago, and strides have been made in updating curricula to reflect reality, the fact remains that much needs to be done to fully educate our youth on black history. African-American education is something that should not be limited to just teaching about heroes and holidays. Even the civil rights movement has been reduced to an emotional eruption of saintly African-Americans led by a dozen inspired leaders, rather than taught as an extraordinarily complex, persistent, intellectually driven social movement.

I believe in Black History Month as a year-round commitment to understanding and open-mindedness that can be applied to all aspects of life. I applaud the teachers who are doing a heroic job in educating our youth about accepting the differences of people as a pathway to see the strengths and power of inclusion.

It is important that we realize that education is an ongoing process and we can never learn enough. Enlightenment needs to occur outside the classroom as well, and we are getting there thanks to a growing number of business leaders with the resources, commitment and inspiration to make a difference. I have been working with the Boston Celtics and Amtrak to help further their efforts in reaching out to our youth and passing on our knowledge and experiences.

On a grander scale, we all need to ask ourselves, "What can I do to make a difference today?" If more people took the initiative to try to change the world, even if it is a small contribution, it would have an amazing impact on society.

In the end, Black History Month, like any other celebration of learning, should be embraced as a reflective time when our drive for more knowledge needs to influence our actions.

There is an old African saying that I remember hearing when I first went to Liberia in 1959: "Know your history, and you'll always be wise." I ask you all to take advantage of this month, and enrich your mind with the history of African-Americans.

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