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Web of Truth, by Darryl E. Owens

Web of truth , by DARRYL E. OWENS, published in the Orlando Sentinel & the Sun-Sentinel
Web-posted: 4:04 p.m. Feb. 21, 2001

A popular joke among black comedians goes like this: Figures Black History Month falls in February -- it's the shortest month on the calendar.
    Actually, Carter G. Woodson, a noted black author and scholar, established Negro History Week in 1926 -- in February. The week evolved into Black History Month, established in 1976.
    Though the facts may steal sizzle from the quip, the subtext at which the joke hints rings true: America has a long history of giving black history short shrift.
    Open the average history textbook, and more than 400 years of black history becomes reduced to a few paragraphs about slavery, the civil rights movement, crooners and Heisman Trophy winners.
    Come Black History Month, America trots out the moldy oldies -- Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King -- then stashes them for another year once March roars in.
    That most whites can go from cradle to grave with a thimbleful of knowledge about black history is regrettable. That black children often do the same, some say, is tragic.
    "A knowledge of our history provides children with a sense of continuity and belonging that connects the present generation to generations past," says Sylvie Taylor, an assistant professor at the California School of Professional Psychology in Los Angeles.
    That knowledge, Taylor says, helps black children "to have a better understanding of the present and its many challenges. The only way that this can genuinely be accomplished is for our history to be integrated into our everyday experience."
    The latest hope for accomplishing that, experts say, is the Internet. What history books exclude, the Internet provides in megabytes. What the song We Are the World did for African famine relief in the mid-'80s, some suggest the Internet can accomplish in the 21st century, feeding Americans famished for black history.
    "The Internet is a virtually unlimited resource for accessing information," says Taylor, author of Books for Our Children, Books for Ourselves: An African-American Parent's Guide to Reading Children's Literature. "A number of excellent sites provide unique insights into the African-American experience."
    A recent survey of Yahoo found 32,500 Web page matches for "African-American history." Indeed, as the Internet has grown in prominence and popularity, hundreds of sites filled with valuable nuggets panned from plantation life, Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era have sprung up.
    Much of the material, including historical photographs, sketches, slavery documents, posters, spoken and written speeches, and artwork, has been digitized for the enlightenment of the serious researcher and the casual history buff.
    However, it's not only the volume of information that sets the Internet apart, supporters say. It's the type of information. Often, the chronicles available aren't the Disney-fied version of American history traditionally taught in America's schools.
    Unlike the sanitized versions in many history books, the history of slavery and segregation on the Internet is almost palpable, like the crack, crack, crack of the overseer's whip.
    For instance, at Journal E -- journale.com/withoutsanctuary/main.html -- visitors see the disturbing legacy of lynching through a display of photographs and postcards taken as souvenirs at lynchings throughout America. You reel at the sight of a fresh-faced cherub perched atop his daddy's shoulders in the thick of a reveling crowd enjoying a lynching.
    Or surf to the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture -- www.nypl.org/research/sc/sc.html -- where a wood engraving, printed in Harper's Weekly, shows enslaved Africans on the deck of the bark Wildfire as they were brought into Key West on April 30, 1860. You sense the powerlessness of stunned newly minted African-Americans, soon to stand as a human picket fence on the auction block.
    Similarly, slave narratives, such as that of Ann Ulrich Evans from Mobile, Ala., featured at Gem Online -- www.slavenarratives.com/narr/samp.htm -- offer peeks into the grim realities of plantation life and the quasi-freedom blacks endured after the Civil War. In her narrative, Evans describes the midnight raids of the Ku Klux Klan and innocently wonders, "how come dey [sic] so mean to us colored folks. We never did nothing to dem [sic]."
    It's American history, all right, welts and all.
    While chronicling the bad and the ugly of black history in America is critical, experts are equally psyched over the accounts of the good. That helps "undermine the notion that learning and knowledge are Āwhite,'" said Alphine W. Jefferson, a professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio and the former director of black studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
    On the Web, contributions of blacks who can't do 360-degree dunks, moonwalk or shatter glass with an octave-spanning singing voice are honored. A site such as Faces of Science: African-Americans in The Sciences -- www.lib.lsu.edu/lib/chem/display/faces.html -- offers profiles of little-known black scientists who developed big inventions. "In a capitalist and commercial America," Jefferson says, "it is essential that we show young people that there is another currency -- knowledge."
    Some of the better Web sites are culled from the rich repositories owned by government agencies and museums. The Library of Congress, for instance, excerpts its African-American Mosaic collection -- www.loc.gov/exhibits/african/intro.html -- that surveys the library's full range of collections, including books, periodicals, prints, photographs, music, film and recorded sound.
    And, though the subject is black history, experts say the information should be of interest to everyone. After all, experts say, you can't segregate black history from what we call American history and present an honest picture.
    Just recently, Carlton Holley, a New Jersey entrepreneur, launched Bunchie.com/, a site that promotes underpublicized books and music, largely by black authors and artists. He's hoping to use the Internet to turn people onto extraordinary works that may slip through the mainstream cracks. People, both black and white.
    "Anyone who learns about black history is at the same time learning about American history, and about world history," he says. "As human beings we should have a quest to learn about other cultures that make up the world in which we all live. This cultural enlightenment may serve to enrich our own lives."

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