It's black history month again, that time of year when 400 years of the black experience in America is crammed into 28 days of radio spots and television specials. There will be hundreds of "black facts" and black profiles.
By the time it ends (and it will end as suddenly as it started), you will have learned all you needed to know about Negroes.
"We all know that George Washington Carver revolutionized Southern agriculture with the peanut," began one recent television spot. "But did you know that he also played piano and danced?" And then comes the punch line: "George Washington Carver was a black man."
On the radio, a sports announcer let slip what was really happening. "Black history month is a great time for black trivia," she said, beginning her tribute: "Who was the first black baseball player to break all-time base-stealing records?"
In the schools, young people show up with black history projects made of cutouts from outdated issues of Ebony magazine in which figures such as Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young and former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver are billed as "old-timers."
Carter G. Woodson would not be pleased. When he started Negro History Week on Feb. 7, 1926, he never intended for blacks to be observed for one month, then ignored for the other 11, nor for recognition to be relegated to black trivia.
He started this week of commemoration at a time when blacks were not mentioned in public school textbooks. It was an incentive for teachers to incorporate blacks into the curriculum.
A week was selected in February, during the middle of the school year when birthdays of both Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln were celebrated, for students to show off what they had learned.
In 1976, this country's bicentennial and Woodson's centennial, the week was changed to a month, and the occasion became less a time for reflection and study and more of a media event.
This month, public television programs will contain more black specials and spots than anyone can bear to watch. We will hear for the umpteenth time about the Carvers, Tubmans, Douglasses and Kings. But the presentations will generally be so dated that they will raise questions about whether the whole idea is out of date.
Even in his day, Woodson recognized that blacks made history year-round. What he wanted most was for blacks to be viewed as part of the fabric of American life -- not a month set aside.
Had he been alive last week to watch the American music awards, he would have seen just what the concept of racial recognition has wrought. He could have watched Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson and Prince be nominated for the black male vocal awards, then watch Lionel Ritchie, Prince and Bruce Springsteen be nominated for the pop-male singer award. And he could have wondered what the difference was.
He could have seen Prince win the award for best black album, and wonder what does black mean, since Prince is the only black person in the group.
In other words, he could have seen how screwed up things have become.
Had Woodson been alive last year, he could have wondered why he chose February anyway. Why not the month that Jessie Jackson announced his candidacy for president, or the month Harold Washington was elected mayor of Chicago or the month that Guion Bluford flew into space or the month Vanessa Williams appeared in Penthouse?
Times are changing, and just as Woodson knew it was impossible to contain black history in one week, so it has proved equally impossible to do so in a month.
A new black history is being written, but it cannot be captured in a month. Meanwhile, the heavy concentration of lightweight black snapshots has already become a bore, and it makes one yearn for the coming of March.
And, dare we say, the return to white history?