Beyond Black History Month
One year in college I brought in a chocolate cake and told my class it was to celebrate Black History Month. I distinctly remember everyone carrying on as though it were a joke. While they ate the cake, no one took the symbol of celebration seriously. Sure, in college we’re not our most evolved selves, but this is the only time I remember having any sort of Black History Month celebration outside of public school. I have yet to be a part of a company to ever celebrate Black History Month, outside of me making a comment and forcing people to reflect on it.
Turns out, this isolating incident, the lack of people celebrating Black History Month or taking it seriously, is common in companies today. During the month of January, I reached out to the community, specifically Black-identified individuals, in hopes of hearing some authentic stories of great celebrations of Black History in the workplace. While there were stories of well-organized events that went beyond talking about Martin Luther King Jr. and ordering soul food for lunch, there were many more stories of no acknowledgement whatsoever in the workplace.
Can you imagine for a moment how profoundly isolating it feels to not have your company acknowledge the contributions of people from your background? One respondent even said the lack of a celebration made them feel “discarded and unappreciated,” a sentiment shared from other respondents. This feeling of being under-appreciated directly contributes to your culture and can have a huge impact on feelings of belonging.
Although it can seem difficult for companies to come up with celebration ideas for Black history month, especially when the company isn’t extremely diverse, there are actually many ways to celebrate this holiday. Here are some tips on how to make the most of your Black History Month activities. These tips are informed by the very community you hope to impact.
Involve the community being celebrated
One of the biggest pieces of advice is to just ask the group you want to celebrate the best way to make the month relevant. While it can be uncomfortable to admit your organization is unsure, try to think of it more like an opportunity to collaborate and build trust with marginalized groups in your organization.
If you don’t have an employee resource group (erg) dedicated to Black employees and accomplices(more active than an ally), put out a general call to your organization. When ideas and information come back, put heavier weight on responses from those to whom the holiday means the most. The solution is twofold-–it allows Black employees to self-select into getting involved and it also makes the entire organization aware and excited about the celebration.
Consider Lesser Known Black History Figures.
When it comes to making an authentic celebration, having it revolve around “the usual famous Black faces” is one way to make a celebration fall flat. Instead of celebrating the Martin Luther King Jr.’s and Malcolm X’s, look in your own industry for Black trailblazers and innovators. Bonus points if those people are still alive, as there is a lot of discourse around how Black people and their contributions only matter once their deaths. Celebrating living figures shows your organization's commitment to recognizing excellence as it happens.
Even though celebrating Black History Month is a huge step in being inclusive, you also need to consider how diverse the individuals are that you are celebrating. Look not only across industries, but also at the intersection of identities. Consider LGBTQIA+ Black innovators and Black trailblazers with disability or mental illness. Allowing for the gamut of Black identities increases the conversation about the varied state of Blackness and how all identities contribute to the betterment of society.
Consider Black Futures
As stated, Black History month focuses too much on figures who have passed away. Instead of looking at what has been built to get the Black community to where they are today, consider spending time on Black futures. Study thought leaders, literature, and media in Afro-Futurism. Understand the impact of current policies and culture context and its impact on a better Black future. Black Lives Matter started a curriculum for Black Futures Month, but consider finding your own resources of Afro-Futurism and Black Futurists.
While you’re considering those Black futures, reflect on how your company is making sure they come true. Black History Month should be a time for your organization to reflect on how their efforts are truly bettering the lives of their Black employees. If things have gone by the wayside, this is the perfect time to assess what happened and rededicate efforts to impactful programs. Making Black History Month a part of and not your only inclusion effort helps reduce the feeling of tokenism during the holiday celebration.
Although February has begun, it is never too late to look at your Black History Month efforts and punch them up. So many Black employees want to feel valued and celebrating the contributions of their culture to advancement in every field is a step in the right direction.
Happy Black History Month!