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COVER STORY : Of Pride and Prejudice : Programs at Two Schools Use Black History Month to Dispel Stereotypes, Promote Racial Harmony and Instill Pride in Heritage

March 03, 1994|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

\o7 At the heart of Black History Month celebrations lies the hope for racial harmony. February can provide an opportunity to teach those who are not black about black achievement, or it can give blacks a chance to learn about themselves.

At least that is how Black History Month, which began as Negro History Week in 1929, has come to be celebrated in many public schools.

The two approaches say much about how Black History Month celebrations can reflect the experiences, perceptions and aspirations of students and administrators, regardless of the size of a school's black population.

At a Torrance elementary school with a tiny African American population, Black History Month was a time to teach young minds to look past stereotypes. Instructors at Howard Wood Elementary School chose to introduce their students to black achievers who defy racial stereotypes, hoping that that approach would build a reservoir of tolerance that would last the children into adulthood.

At Hawthorne High School, where 10% of the students are African American and racial wounds have already scarred some psyches, black teens used the observance to affirm their racial pride. The students, who put on a series of performances, chose to illustrate how black people find the spiritual strength to succeed in a society that, as they see it, will always be racially hostile.

Here is a look at the programs:\f7

'I Try to Let the Work Make the Statement'

To drive home the point that African Americans are involved in technological development and the sciences, Wood Elementary, which has nine black students out of an enrollment of 450, invited two prominent black inventors to demonstrate their devices.

The cafeteria was darkened while Hawthorne inventor Joseph Jackson used a projector to demonstrate the Telecommander, a device that parents can use to restrict how much time and which programs their children watch on television.

The children murmured appreciatively as black, orange and green graphics slid across the screen. But their mood changed as they quickly began to understand the purpose of Jackson's invention.

Nobody liked it.

"Let's say that Mom wants you to do homework from 3 to 5 (p.m.)," Jackson said. "Then all she does is press a button and block out that time on the TV and it won't come on. No matter where you go they're all blocked out."

Orange squares spread across the black grid on the screen and Jackson smiled at the audience. As if stunned that anyone would brag about such a device, the children remained silent.

Jackson kept on.

"And with this button here, she can keep you from playing Nintendo (games) when it's time to do your homework."

This time, the kids protested:

"This is so messed up," they said to one another. "How could he do this?" "I can't believe it!" "Can you believe it?" "God, I hope my parents never hear about this!"

Then Jackson took questions. How did he become an inventor? What made him want to learn about electricity? Jackson did not talk about being a black man and what hurdles he had to leap to become an electrical engineer and inventor. The children did not ask about his color.

"I try to let the work make the statement," he said afterward. "It's obvious who and what I am when I stand up."

Dr. Patricia E. Bath, who developed and patented the cataract laserphacoprobe used for eye surgery, demonstrated her invention after Jackson finished. Bath, former chief of ophthalmology at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center, told the children about the qualities of laser light while sending a red beam to different points in the room.

The little children raced to touch the beam as it hit the back wall. The older ones were impressed, but were less enthusiastic.

A few, however, were puzzled: "I thought a laser was a gun," said second-grader Chris Underwood.

"Well, lasers have many uses, but we want to emphasize the positive uses," Bath replied.

Like Jackson, Bath did not mention her color, and the children did not ask her about it. Both said they hope the children simply remember that they have seen inventors who are black.

Interviewed after the assemblies, Jackson said that because of his race, he faced many obstacles in the Army and in his career, but he did not want to elaborate. Bath was more candid.

Bath said she has hit a glass ceiling in the corporate world, which, she speculates, would be happier to see her market fast food rather than medical equipment.

"Now I know they'd let me sell fried chicken but medical technology?"

Corporate America, she said, does not see a black woman as the ideal marketing image for technology.

After a pause, Bath added: "But you know, I'm grateful to the corporate world for giving me this challenge. You can't be the first person to climb Mount Everest anymore and you can't be the first to go around the world anymore. If I'm the first African American woman to succeed with her invention in the corporate world, well, then thank you."

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