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Nation Still Divided by Race, Says Columnist
February 7, 2000

Clarence Page is old enough to remember segregation - which he knew as "the rules" - and the pain it caused. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist is also old enough to know that while we must embrace the lessons of the past, we must move past the hurt and go into the future as a united people.

"History does not die easily," Page, a nationally syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune, said at the Black History Month opening ceremony on Tuesday. "The fact is, we have to get past the past."

The need to do so is especially noteworthy in light of the recent flap over the flying of the Confederate flag in South Carolina. "We're still looking to be a united nation," Page said. "The Civil War is still going on in many people's minds."

In a speech punctuated by humor, Page reminded the audience of all that African Americans have overcome. Originally brought to this country as slaves, African Americans have made great strides in the economic and political arenas.

In 1967, several years after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the first two African American mayors were elected. Today, there are more than 8,000 African American elected officials across the country, Page said. "The political realm is just about saturated. We ask today, where else can we put our eggs, what basket."

The percentage of African Americans living in poverty has dropped from two-thirds in 1966 to one-third in 1986. With that decrease and the rise of the black middle class, there are now African Americans at the forefront of numerous fields. "We have leadership all around," Page said. "The question is what are we going to do with that leadership."

Despite the advances African Americans have made, there are a myriad of problems for community leaders and activists to address, he noted.

Racism still exists in many troubling forms, Page said. It can be found in the resegregation that occurs when whites move out of the suburbs as African Americans move in, for example, and in the tendency for African Americans to frequent one bar in the Washington, D.C., neighborhood where Page works, while whites gather at another.

"We must get past the denial that suggests race is a problem of the past," he said.

However, racism isn't the only issue African Americans must address. As many people of color have moved ahead economically, the gap between the rich and the poor has grown, Page said.

The celebration of Black History Month is important, as it helps African Americans discover their rich history, Page said. Originally begun by Carter G. Woodson as "Negro history week," Black History Month is about self-knowledge and examining where we have been and where we are," he said.

"We must make this a meaningful experience not just for African Americans but for all people," Page said.

Ultimately, history is about the future, since it is impossible to know where you're going unless you know where you have been, he said.

Understanding the past is especially important to young people, Page said. "You, the next generation, must pick up the pieces of this world we leave to you," he told the students in the audience. "I think it is really going to be you all who build on what has come before."

Page began writing his Chicago Tribune column in 1984. In 1989, he won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. He is also author of the book, Showing My Color: Impolite Essays on Race and Identity, and a frequent guest on television shows such as NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and Black Entertainment Television's Lead Story.

In addition to Page's speech, Tuesday's program also featured a celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday; a performance by the Voices of Freedom Gospel Choir; and remarks by Willena Kimpson Price, director of the H. Fred Simons African American Cultural Center, and Fred Maryanski, interim chancellor of the University.

"This university is about learning to live in today's society," Maryanski said, noting that UConn is becoming more diverse. Yet there is still room for improvement in areas such as the retention and graduation rates for African American students.

"We cannot get complacent and say we have everything worked out," Maryanski said.

Tuesday's program was sponsored by the African American Cultural Center. Other Black History month events include: Mahogany Affair, an annual formal dinner and dance, on Feb. 11; the Mr. and Ms. Black UConn Pageant on Feb. 19; and the African Diaspora Cabaret featuring the People of Goodwill, on Feb. 25.

Allison Thompson