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Do we need a black history month? Filmmaker says 'no'

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 4, 2012 - As you turn your 2012 calendar to February, ask yourself -- should we keep Black History Month? African American filmmaker, Shukree Hassan Tilghman, 29 has an opinion and set out cross-country on a campaign to end the month-long celebration.

On Feb. 2, Tilghman's documentary "More Than a Month" will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Missouri History Museum followed by a discussion with the filmmaker. Tilghman ventured out during the coldest, shortest month of the year wearing a sandwich board and asking for signatures to end the observance of Black History Month.

"I really loved it as a kid. I loved the sense of empowerment and learning about all these people who were superheroes like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. But as I got older, I felt like I was just learning about the same thing and I got kind of tired of it," said Tilghman. "Then I heard Morgan Freeman criticizing Black History Month and it was a pivotal movement for me because someone else said what I was thinking in public."

Tilghman wanted to find a way to get a dialogue going about the idea of ethnic heritage months and what they really mean. Could it be by separating them from American history as a whole we as a society were denigrating the role of black people and black culture?

The film follows Tilghman into Ivy League universities and Philadelphia public schools and to a confederate flag celebration in Virginia, which Tilghman confesses "was a little awkward to be a sea of confederate flags."

Tilghman had anticipated this being a challenge to produce, "I was expecting a lot of resistance, which we got. I was expecting the movie to be hard to finance - which it was." However, the conversations after people see the film make it all worth it. "People like to discuss the issues that come up in the film -- commercialism, education, is the holiday a positive or negative for our identity and finally what do we do now?"

"More than a Month" is not only a documentary but also spawned an application called Map(p), which comes out this month on iPhones and Androids and other smartphone devices. "Map(p) was part of our what-to-do-next solution," said Tilghman. The app will allow you to type in your Zip code and from there get reference points about where you can learn about black history. "We got the idea because I am obsessed with Starbucks. Every time we were on the road, I would look for the nearest Starbucks on my phone and I thought, hey let's take this idea to black history."

Tilghman will be at the Missouri History Museum Thursday to speak about the production of this film and the controversial themes it brings up.

"If I could boil it down, I would hope people would think more deeply and think more critically about why we have a black history month: what do we need, want or aspire to for Black History Month and other heritage months to feel like they are not necessary? What would have to happen for that to be comfortable for everyone?"

The film is part of the Community Cinema Series, a partnership among Nine Network, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Missouri History Museum.

Rosa Dudman Mayer is a freelance writer.