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The 'Value of Agitation'
African American History Program Recalls Great Thinkers
By Carla Garnett
Photos by Janet Stephens
What if everybody always played well together and no one ever disagreed with the status quo, never asked tough questions or demanded hard answers? Would problems ever get solved? Those were the queries posed repeatedly during this year's observance of African American History Month. Held on Feb. 14 in Masur Auditorium, NIH's 2005 program, "Science in Motion: The Role of African American Inventors," was a salute to some of the great thinkers — and thought provokers — of the last few centuries.
"We look at today's program not only as an educational opportunity, but also as a celebration of achievement," said Lawrence Self, director of the NIH Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Management, which sponsored the annual event.
In opening remarks, NIH deputy director Dr. Raynard Kington, referring to Ralph Ellison's groundbreaking 1952 novel The Invisible Man, said the book's title should both "caution and inspire." To be invisible, Kington suggested, means to have no history and to lack full participation in society. "What we're doing today is looking back at our history and making it truly visible...We see this as an investment in our present and future history. We've come a long way, but we are traveling a road that never ends and we can do better."
Kington also discussed the legacy of another great American thinker, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois, professor, philosopher and one of the nation's earliest civil rights champions who penned a popular manuscript on "the value of agitation." Often criticized as an instigator and troublemaker, Du Bois wrote that while agitation — pointing out a society's weaknesses and deficiencies, "shining light on dark places" — is hardly an easy or pleasant task, it is often a necessary duty in order to force improvements and to correct injustices.
"What we do here at NIH could be called agitation," Kington said. "We shine light on the dark facts of...AIDS, alcohol abuse on college campuses" and on glaring disparities in health. "We have to continue to agitate for a better tomorrow."
In recognition of the month's national theme, "the 100th Anniversary of the Niagara Movement," Dr. Marian Johnson-Thompson of NIEHS gave a slide presentation that recounted the history of the 1905 inaugural gathering of 29 African American activists. Led by Du Bois, the group created an organization to demand voting rights and end discrimination, leading in 1909 to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Interestingly, Johnson-Thompson noted, one of the movement's earliest documents — a treatise titled The Health and Physique of the Negro American, published in May 1906 — described inequitable health conditions suffered by black people in that era. It was one of the first published acknowledgments of what are now collectively referred to as "health disparities," which continue to confound the medical and scientific community nearly a century later.
Local soloist Darria Reid provided musical entertainment at the event, offering Yolanda Adams-inspired renditions of I Believe I Can Fly and Open My Heart.
The celebration concluded with a performance by Washington, D.C.-based Pin Points Theatre. Blending satire, song and slapstick humor, the 5-member ensemble delivered three vignettes from an "edu-tainment" play titled 1001 Black Inventions. The comic drama combined black history facts with artistic license to engage the audience in the lives and inventions of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first successful open heart surgery; Jan Matzeliger, who mechanized shoe-lasting; and Dr. George Washington Carver, who developed hundreds of products from peanuts, soybeans and sweet potatoes.
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