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Celebrating Recent Black History

Arlington events look at policemen, rappers, African immigrants.

Black History month often means an emphasis on the touchstones of black history: Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Park, Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman.

But three local events look at some of black history’s less famous names, at recent events and the way history is made everyday.

In a program this Friday, Drew Model School will look at Virginia’s black heroes, while saluting black firefighters, police and members of the military who live in Arlington.

On Sunday, the Ethiopian Community Development Council will look at Africa, African immigrants, and their place in black history.

Last Saturday, the county held its 10th annual Feel the Heritage festival, with steel drum bands, Ethiopian dancers, and a performance by rap pioneer Kurtis Blow.

<b>Local Heroes</b>

<bt>The idea behind Drew’s ceremony, "Honoring Heroes: Black Americans Contributing to Strong Community," was twofold, Lamont Mitchell said.

Mitchell, community liaison at Drew, served as head of the black history night planning committee for the school. The committee wanted a program that would look at black Americans included in the state’s Standards of Learning, he said: historical figures like Nat Turner and Maggie Walker, more recent personalities Douglas Wilder and Arthur Ashe, and even white abolitionist John Brown.

But the committee was also looking for a way to get the community involved, "We wanted it to be engaging and fun, and welcoming to our community," Mitchell said. To that end, they invited black policemen, firefighters and military personnel who live and work in Arlington.

"I think it was influenced by Sept. 11 to make that part of the theme," Mitchell said. "But it was a natural fit. It includes people from this community, because the neighborhood Drew is in is primarily African American."

<b>African Americans</b>

<bt> Hanan Bedri, program coordinator for the Ethiopian Community Development Council, said the organization wanted to use black history month as a way to assimilate new immigrants into the community. At the same time, she said, it provides an opportunity for Arlingtonians to see one of the many cultures that make up the local black community.

ECDC began as an organization for Ethiopian immigrants, but now deals with immigrants and refugees from a range of African countries. Expanding that reach further, ECDC worked with the Council of Ghanaians Association on "Celebrating Black Heroes," a multimedia program this Sunday at Arlington Mill Community Center.

"It is a new concept to the African newcomers to be called collectively as ‘Black’ or ‘African Americans,’" Bedri wrote in an e-mail. Black history month is an opportunity for them to connect to the entire community of black Americans.

But it’s also a chance for everyone to see the beginnings of history, black or white. "Anthropologists have proven beyond doubt that mankind had its beginnings in the continent of Africa," Bedri wrote, so "black history is the longest running history of any race of people."

The program will combine black American and African history, with a look at Martin Luther King Jr., and a documentary also examining the stories of the Sudanese "Lost Boys," orphaned in Sudan’s 20-year civil war. Some of the Sudanese refugees have been settled locally by ECDC

<b>Old School History</b>

<bt>At the Feel the Heritage Festival, this past Saturday at the Gunston Community Center, the gymnasium bleachers were packed for the performance by 1980s old school rapper Kurtis Blow.

Blow, now 42, started out performing in Harlem clubs in the 1970s, and his set Saturday included his hits, "The Breaks," "Basketball," and "Hard Times," along with instrumental breaks and break dancing.

As he finished, Saturday, he exhorted the audience to look for a positive statement in their rap. That message was echoed after the performance by Patrick Robertson, 34, an Arlington resident.

Old school rap is a big part of black history for today’s black Americans, he said. "It’s the foundation for what we see today, in a positive way," Robertson said.

That should be the focus of black history month, he said. "The emphasis should be on who the leaders are now," he said. "It’s necessary to look back, and to continue to look forward."

Liset Reaves brought her two sons to see Blow, and also to look at the displays of African and black American arts, crafts and history on display. She was happy with the entire event at Gunston, she said.

"The main reason I bring them here is for the kids to see their background," she said. "It’s great the way they have everything displayed. The kids ask, ‘what does this mean, where does this come from,’ when they see everything."

Ama Abbiah was behind some of those displays. Abbiah and Harriet Achiah were selling handmade Ghanaian crafts at Gunston on Saturday. But Abbiah, who has lived here since 1972, made it clear where she stood on her own black history.

"I’m from Ghana, but I’m American now," she said.