The February Almanac

Arts & Letters

For almost a decade February has been Afro-American (or Black History) Month, a showcase for African-American achievements, but an increasing number of artists and intellectuals are sitting it out, on the grounds that relegating African-American accomplishments to a single month amounts to tokenism and “ghettoization.”Though these criticisms are not new, they are gathering force, with corporations as well as individual performers bowing out of the month’s observances. This February, for example, Arista Records will forgo its usual AfroAmerican Month promotions in favor of broader, ongoing outreach programs; Home Box Office and Pepsi-Cola took similar actions last year. Supporters of the observance argue, often with regret, that a formal means for promoting awareness remains necessary nonetheless.

Demographics

Some comfort can be found amid this month’s winter gloom: Americans are less likely to fall victim to homicide in February (which averages just over 7 percent of the murders that occur each year) than in any other month. Assaults, thefts, and burglaries are also typically at annual lows. Weather is one often-cited explanation: not only are fewer people out on the streets, but homes are apt to be secured against the elements and, in the process, against intruders. A less obvious theory: the dip in homicides may relate to decreased exposure to outdoor environmental toxins—especially manganese, which is found in vehicle exhaust emissions and has been linked to violent behavior in prisoners.

Food

February 14, the millions of schoolchildren who exchange candy “conversation” hearts as Valentines will get an unscheduled lesson in multiculturalism: in circulation this year are not only hearts conveying staple messages such as KISS ME and BE MINE but also ones stamped with the word “love” in one of 25 languages, including Arabic, Finnish, Hungarian, Swahili, and Bahasa Malaysia. The multilingual hearts, which are manufactured by the Stark company, represent the latest effort of confectionary firms to stay abreast of an increasingly politically correct, and on occasion exceedingly puritanical, market—sometimes a tricky business. Stark added a line of Spanish-language hearts in 1977. The New England Confectionary Company (Necco) dropped its decades-old I’M GAY several years later, because of the sexual connotation the statement had acquired; Necco has also abandoned OH BOY and FOXY LADY, because of consumer complaints.

Environment

This month, in response to a sweeping 1994 executive order, more than a dozen federal agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Department of Commerce, must make final their plans to combat what the Clinton Administration has called “environmental injustice” and activists have called “environmental racism" and “radioactive colonialism": the disproportionate location of environmentally harmful facilities in low-income and minority communities. According to one study, people of color are nearly 50 percent more likely than whites to live near a commercial toxicwaste facility. The agencies’ plans will probably include community grants, regulatory programs, and data-collection initiatives. Whether any of these will make a dramatic difference remains to be seen: to some strapped communities, including some Indian reservations, waste disposal has become a lucrative source of revenue and jobs.

Health & Safety

February 9, new safety standards for loggers across the country take effect today; they are the first significant federal action in 25 years to bolster safe practices in logging, which has persistently had one of the highest rates of injury of any industry: as many as one in five loggers is injured, and one in 500 killed, each year. The new legislation, enacted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, requires loggers to wear protective equipment (and to inspect it before each shift), to be trained in first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, and to complete a series of rigorous safety checks before beginning to cut down trees. In addition, all new chain saws must be equipped with “chain brakes,”which stop the chain from turning in the event of an accident. The construction industry, which has been plagued by a dismal safety record as well, must also comply with new OSHA regulations this month, in its case in an effort to reduce injuries from falls.

The Skies

February 2, Saturn lies beneath the new crescent Moon, low in the southwest at sunset. 11, Mars makes its closest approach to Earth, and reaches opposition: it lies on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, and therefore is visible all night long, rising around sunset and setting near dawn. 15, Full Moon, also known this month as the Hunger, Snow, or Frightened Coyote Moon.

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