D.C. Mayor Marion Barry took time from a speech marking Black History Month yesterday to poke fun at actress Bo Derek's tightly braided cornrows.
He mentioned the hair style, popular in parts of Africa for hundreds of years and said, "Can you imagine? We can't even have cornrows now. Somebody's taken that from us, nappy hair and all."
Barry's address kicked off two weeks of special programs on black history at the National Institutes of Health. The mayor said, however, that a month of recognizing black accomplishments is not enough.
"Our history has been so distorted, our culture has been so taken away from us, our perceptions are so diffused that we need to talk about black history 365 days a year," Barry said. "From the black perspective, it's 'his [the white man's] story,' not our story."
Barry gave a rousing speech that envoked memories of his days as a student activist in the 1960s and drew frequent murmured responses from his well-dressed audience in the same mammer -- if not at the same volume -- that a revivalist minister draws "amens" from his congregation.
"Never be ashamed you're black in America," Barry said. "We've been so brainwashed. We need to understand that the struggle for freedom, justice and equality didn't begin yesterday."
He spoke of seeing slave-trade ports on his trip to Africa last summer. "Our ancestors were herded on ships like sardines," Barry said. "Even in those days, there were some people who rebelled. Don't you believe that slaves were happy. It's like a bird in a cage that doesn't sing."
"We were a strong people, or else we wouldn't be here," Barry said. "Our ancestors cannot be forgotten in terms of what they did for us."
Barry said that for blacks, "things arre just as bad in 1980 as they were in 1970." He pointed out that black unemployment is still high, that black families earn even less now, compared with white familes, than they did in 1970, and that blacks represent only 1 percent of the nation's elected officials.
"This very night, people will go to bed hungry and without shelter," Barry said. "Can you imagine the agony of the mother in Anacostia when her baby cries at night and she has to wonder if it's a $50 cry or a $300 cry, and she has neither?"
He said blacks should feel emotional ties to Africa. "What you've lost," he told the crowd, "is you culture and your history and your language."
"If we don't teach ourselves, who will?" he demanded. "If we don't teach our young people, who will? We've got to undo 'his story.'"
Barry spoke strongly in favor of making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, "and not just on a Sunday either. It should be just like George Washington's birthday."
NIH has had special lunchtime and evening programs marking Black History Month each year for the past eight years, as well as programs observing the contributions of Hispanics, Native Americans and Asian Americans.