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Column: Three do’s and don’ts for Black History Month

A Black Lives Matter mural at the intersection of West Main and Jones Ferry In Carrboro on Feb. 1, 2021.

It’s Black History Month. Don’t worry if you forgot — the many advertisements, promotional emails, honorary statements and corporate social media posts that started rolling out on Feb. 1 are there to remind you. 

The idea for Black History Month started in 1915 when Carter G. Woodson and Jesse E. Moorland founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History. They sought to research and highlight the historical and ongoing achievements of Black Americans.

A little over a decade after its founding, the ASNLH hosted a national Negro History Week in 1926. It took place in February to honor the birthdays of both President Abraham Lincoln and former enslaved person and abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

During Negro History Week, schools and communities around the country were encouraged to host performances and lectures to discuss the history and achievements of African Americans. By the 1960s, the week-long event was promoted by politicians and extended to a month on college campuses due in part to the social and political unrest from the civil rights movement. In 1976, President Ford officially recognized Black History Month as a national event.

Since then, Black History Month has continued to exist, though how exactly it is commemorated looks different across industries and institutions. As we continue through this month, I thought it best to quickly go over some do's and don’ts, highlighting the worst and best practices as our country honors the historical and cultural impact of African Americans.

Don’t: Commodify 

The most obvious corporate strategy for Black History Month is promotional products. This can look like Target’s “Black Beyond Measure” marketing campaign, which curates a collection of products by Black businesses and spotlights the team members behind it. This is a subtle approach that simply encourages sales as a way to celebrate the month. 

A more explicit move was taken by Bath & Body Works, who came under fire for their limited-edition Black History Month collection that — according to their website — “unites traditional African art with modern-day motifs designed to inspire and uplift.” 

In reality, it was preexisting scents branded with Kente cloth for a slightly higher price. The profits would help support the company’s $500,000 contribution to the National Urban League and Columbus Urban League, which advocate for civil rights and racial justice. 

While we can appreciate the efforts towards partnerships with Black business owners and Black organizations, we should be cautious to accept the commodification of Black culture as anything other than profit-seeking by large companies. They not only make money from selling products but can also use the same lofty donations as tax write-offs.

Do: Support

Rather than limiting your support of Black businesses to Black History Month, individuals and corporations can genuinely support them year-round. Profiting from these businesses does nothing for equity, but gives monetary and social capital to large corporations via direct profits and establishing a good reputation for their support of minorities.

Supporting Black-owned businesses by bypassing big companies like Target or Bath & Body Works actually contributes to their longevity. Additionally, finding mutual aid and bail fund organizations can have a more concrete impact on the lives of African Americans without lining the pockets of big corporations.

Don’t: Sanitize

Another large part of Black History Month is remembering the individuals that contributed to the history of our country. We talk about people like Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, who were crucial to important points in American history like slavery and the civil rights movement. We remember their achievements as well as others who persevered, despite racism and oppression. 

This narrative should be coupled with attention to the context in which they persevered and the things that still linger from that past. It should include less popular figures and events like Fred Hampton, a Black Panther activist assassinated in a police raid, or the 1985 bombing of MOVE by police in Philadelphia.

Watering down and sanitizing our country’s history of racism and solely focusing on how Black Americans triumphed in some ways enables a kind of forgetting that erases the bigger picture.

Do: Educate  

Rather than waiting for February to come around and information to be brought to you, seek out an understanding of African American history for yourself. Part of this month is honoring important figures that are often neglected.

I remember learning about the Black inventors of the traffic light, peanut butter, home security system and more when I was in middle school and through my parents. Limiting our conversation about the actions of these individuals is part of that neglect.

Pyer Moss' couture show last year is a phenomenal example of finding different ways to keep these individuals in our collective memory and expand our recognition of Black achievement beyond this designated time. 

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Don’t: Pander 

One of the most frustrating elements of Black History Month is the sense that corporations, politicians and others use the commemoration of the month to pander to Black people. 

An infamous example of this in recent memory happened in June of 2020 when Democrats donned Ghanaian Kente cloth and knelt for a moment of silence to George Floyd. This was not tied directly to Black History Month but very well could have been, and exemplifies the way Black and African motifs are sometimes used to demonstrate a connection to and care for Black issues — but is merely surface level. 

The ongoing controversy with Joe Rogan and Spotify highlights the hypocrisy that can exist with a company that makes efforts to honor Black History Month but also engages in practices harmful to the Black community.

Like many companies, Spotify released a statement about their commitment to “celebrating and uplifting Black culture, creativity, and community year-round.” Simultaneously however, they’ve been called out for their $100 million relationship with Joe Rogan, the host of their most popular podcast. A clip of Rogan repeatedly using racial slurs circulated on social media and resulted in singer India.Arie pulling her music and podcast from the platform as well as the quiet removal of numerous episodes of his show.

Spotify spent so much providing Rogan with a platform, and this makes their Black History Month efforts hollow.

Do: Practice 

Special emphasis for Black History Month needs to exist in tandem with a commitment to eradicating forms of racism and injustice that happen year-round. We must acknowledge the challenges that function as barriers to continued Black achievement, like health, economic and environmental disparities that exasperate inequalities.

Understanding the tendency for history to repeat itself is crucial, especially in how it bears relevance to something like the debate around critical race theory currently holding national and state attention. Putting what we preach during Black History Month into practice could fundamentally change how we understand and approach racial reform as a nation.

Black History Month is a time to spotlight the historical and cultural contributions of African Americans that dealt with centuries of slavery, legalized discrimination, systemic racism and interpersonal hatred and anti-Blackness. This is a time to honor how far Black Americans have come in spite of this.

Our attention this month should be only an added enthusiasm to an already vibrant sense of recognition sustained for all 12 months of the year.

@_zarialyssa |