Black History Month is a time for remembering all the things that make African-American culture and heritage so central to America's story, while reflecting on the country's troubled racial history.
We've compiled a list of ways you and your family can celebrate this February, while learning about the myriad people, ideas and contributions that have arisen out of the black experience:
1. Listen to some African-American music: Of all the cultural contributions black Americans have made to the artistic lexicon, their musical influence may be the most ubiquitous, enduring and revolutionary. Blues, soul, R&B, hip-hop, jazz and other genres were all either invented or pioneered by black musicians, many of whom had to look on in dismay as their innovations were copied and ripped off by white artists who rode them to fame and wealth. Either way, great black music lives on to this day, and a trip back through musical time both recent and long past will do much to remind you of the importance black singers and musicians have had in the creation of the sounds of America. From the talented finger-picking of Mississippi John Hurt and the masterful horn-blowing of Louis Armstrong to the crooning of Al Green and the peerless genius of Stevie Wonder, the history of African-American music is one without peer in the modern age. But even today there are many vital black artists, paving the way for whole new genres and styles of music, from Frank Ocean and Big Boi to Kendrick Lamar and Alicia Keys; the list of names could go on forever. So, in order to ring in Black History Month in one of the most relaxing ways we can think of, gather your family and friends around, brew a nice cup of tea, play John Coltrane's transcendent "A Love Supreme" on your stereo, and sit back and reflect on the contributions of one of the world's most influential music cultures.
2. Check out black history's increasing presence on the National Mall: The National Mall in Washington, D.C., has long been dominated by monuments only to great white Americans, but that is swiftly changing with the arrival of two major African-American projects there. The first, which many people know about by now, is the first memorial to a black man on the Mall, the newly opened Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. Featuring a massive, imposing statue of MLK right in the midst of one of the most-popular tourist destinations in America, it opened in August 2011 to great fanfare. It's definitely worth a trip to Washington just to see this beautiful work of art dedicated to the face of the civil rights movement, located within eyesight of the Lincoln Memorial, where King delivered his famous "I Have A Dream" speech in 1963. And while you're in D.C., be sure to stop by the site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which broke ground a year ago during a ceremony attended by President Barack Obama and former first lady Laura Bush. While this museum is still under construction, you will more than likely be impressed by the plans for its completion, the breadth of the planned exhibits and programs, and the architecture and design behind this important building. A bronze-coated crown rising as an inverse pyramid will be the most distinct feature of the museum, the design of which is inspired by African-American metalwork from New Orleans and Charleston, S.C., as well as African art.
3. Learn about important black leaders, visionaries and artists: This may be the most obvious suggestion on this list, but it may also be the one that gets to the heart of Black History Month the best. Educating yourself about all the important African-Americans in our nation's history is something many of us in the younger generations started doing in grade school, but even black history scholars can learn more than they already know, especially as the field of such inspriational figures grows with every passing year. A good place to start your educational tour through black history is the History Channel's detailed Black History Month homepage, which has some of the best information on everyone from Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson to Condoleeza Rice and Maya Angelou.
4. Cook a dinner of traditional African-American foods: Celebrating African-American culture during Black History Month may seem like a chore to many readers - and this one literally is. But the reward of cooking a meal of traditional African-American foods far outweighs the time and effort it will require. A wide range of foods became popular in the South while African-Americans were still suffering under slavery. Many of these foods, from cornbread to greens to black-eyed-peas, became staples of black life in the South because the ingredients to make them were inexpensive and readily available in many African-American households during the tough post-slavery years of the Reconstruction. But that doesn't make them any less scrumptious, so forget your New Year's resolution diet for a night and serve your family a meal of African-American-inspired foods. And be sure to tell them the culinary tale behind the spread, so dinner can be a time for both noshing and learning.
5. Read (or re-read) "The Autobiography of Malcolm X": This classic book examines the instructive story of Malcolm X's life, as told to Alex Haley, of "Roots" fame. Brother Malcolm's tale is one of redemption, one that demontrates that the "arc of the moral universe" truly does "bend toward justice," as his contemporary and sometime rival, Martin Luther King, Jr., said decades ago, and Obama repeated in his 2008 Inaugural Address. Beginning with Brother Malcolm's hard youth first as a drug-taking, inner-city Boston street criminal, and then as a prisoner, it seems at first that his life was going nowhere. But through the power of faith, dedication and education, Malcolm Little (his white-given last name) was able to overcome his demons, find a spiritual center, shed the physical and mental shackles that bound him, and try to be good in his life. Though that evolution included time both as a follower of the Nation of Islam and as a black-power militant, it eventually leads him to leave the Nation amid a terrible controversy and go to Mecca, where he learned the power of peace before being shot down in cold blood as he attempted to spread it to others. "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" takes readers on a journey into what makes the African-American experience such a unique one, and into the transcendent things any man or woman - black, white, yellow or green - can accomplish through the power of finding one's self.