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Jewish World Review Feb. 27, 2002/ 16 Adar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Remembering to color inside the lines -- YOU may remember that when you were in kindergarten your biggest problem was how to color inside the lines, or whether to choose the rock, flower or shell to take to ``show and tell.'' Telling time by where the hands on the clock were was hardest of all.

Be glad you've moved on. Now the tykes must carry the burdens of black history and injustices past. Not everyone survives Black History Month equally.

In a public school in the nation's capital, for example, children in one prekindergarten class heard a popular story about a slave family in the Deep South. The daddy in the story was about to be sold and his children were terrified: ``What will happen to us when Daddy goes away?'' The family decides to take the underground railway north. They escape to freedom, but with lots of fears and frights along the way.

One of the black children in the class, age 4, with the same name as a little boy in the story, didn't hear the story as heroic at all. He became frightened and angry. He told his mom he wanted to change the color of his skin.

``What color do you want to be?'' she asked.

``I want to be white.''

His mom, unaware of the story, first thought he had been the victim of a racial slur. Not until he woke out of a nightmare screaming, ``I don't want to be black,'' did he tell her about the story. ``It ignited fears of abandonment and anxiety over black identity,'' she says. ``He thought he could be kidnapped and become a slave. He screamed that he didn't want to play in the sun anymore, he didn't want to get any darker.''

Obviously, the child was too young to absorb the heroism of the family's flight to freedom as related by his well-meaning white teacher. He learned only that being black meant trouble. This is the trouble that many black parents have with Black History Month.

A new book by a black writer takes sharp and refreshing exception to the notion that nurturing victimhood is the route to success. His title, ``The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America,'' is ironic, but it suggests a direction away from the victim mentality.

Ellis Close, the author, even pokes fun at Black History Month. He tells an audience at the Martin Luther King Public Library in Washington that they should learn to use Black History Month more effectively: If a cop profiles you in February, ``tell him he has to wait until March.'' Naturally not everybody finds the joke funny.

Ellis Close acknowledges the paradoxes of being black, but seeks to inspire in a new way, looking ahead at black potential rather than nurturing grievances over slavery and the oppression of the past. He articulates what he calls hard truths: ``Complain all you like about the raw deal you have gotten in life, but don't expect those complaints to get you anywhere. ... America likes winners.'' Or this: ``Recognize that being true to yourself is not the same as being true to a stupid stereotype.''

He excoriates young and old, but especially well-educated middle class blacks who affect the ``acting black'' anti-intellectual street swagger of the streets, which takes it cues from the behavior of thugs. That creates a damaging and false self-perception.

He profiles successful black men who open themselves up ``to unprecedented possibilities.'' One is a grand master of chess. Another is the first black to head a Fortune 500 company. Still another runs a boarding school for blacks that offers traditional academics and traditional values, where you can't fall back on victim rationalizations. Hard work and reading good books work.

Is he articulating an actual switch in black attitudes? Not likely. The black leadership continues to emphasize what America can do for blacks rather than what blacks can do for themselves -- or for their country. That's too bad, because white America has turned its back on its racist past and cheers black success.

Black History Month, which could inspire white as well as black, has come to emphasize separateness, difference and prejudice, cultivating resentment of the past, rather than pride in progress toward the ideal we all can share. You don't have to be a 4-year-old to get the wrong message.

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