Given the heightened awareness of race relations of late, February 2021’s Black History Month will undoubtedly be more impactful and celebratory than ever before.
Originally recognized in 1976 by U.S. President Gerald Ford, the month was set aside to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.” The foundation was set in the early 20th century when historian, Carter Woodson, saw how Black people were not well represented in books and discussions, despite the intrinsic part they played in American history.
As a result, Woodson founded an organization with educator, minister and philanthropist Jesse Moorland to promote studying Black history as a discipline and to celebrate the achievements of African Americans (now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History or the ASALH). Negro History Week was later launched and observed in February, the birthday month of both Frederick Douglass – the social reformer and abolitionist – and President Abraham Lincoln.
Black History Month (BHM) has since become a global affair, with other countries around the world devoting a month to commemorate and reflect on shared history – both individual and collective – as well as to educate, celebrate and continue the fight for social progress, justice and equality of Black people.
Over a century has passed since Woodson decided to tackle the problem of Black people’s virtual “erasure” from American history. Yet, despite social progress, it is still relatively hard to find information in popular literature about Black history. Thus, Black History Month provides a platform for previously untold stories to be shared.
As a Black British U.S. immigrant, my history is different than that of African Americans. I was born in the U.K. and my grandparents were part of the “Windrush Generation” where, between the years 1948 to 1970, nearly half a million people migrated from the Caribbean to Britain in order to address skill shortages in the aftermath of the Second World War and rebuild the country.
“Celebrating BHM gives me an opportunity to be proud of something I was once taught to be ashamed of. Our Black history past does not dictate our future.”
– Nye Jones, certified diversity professional
The Windrush was a huge part of British history; yet, as a child, I was never taught about this at school, and it was never really spoken about at home. While it’s hard for me to understand why such a vital part of British history remains deliberately glossed over in traditional pedagogy, I understood the significance of that silence at home. My family wanted to ensure we integrated well into the British way of life by not drawing too much attention to the differences between us and those whose heritage lay rooted in the “mother country,” especially given that many of my friends were white.
Now, living and working in the U.S., a country built and populated by immigrants, I absorb and participate in BHM events with the aim of learning more about African American history. Understanding cultures is a key element to promoting diversity and inclusion within all institutions, businesses and organizations.
The death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020 was a seminal moment for many. Global protests were not just about his death but about the urgency to overturn systemic racism, too. Suddenly, businesses felt the pressure to be both reflective and accountable in many ways: for the delivery or non-delivery of their own diversity, equity and inclusion pledges (if they even had these) and for assessing the part they might inadvertently play in upholding discriminatory systems.
We have seen protesting and petitioning on a scale not witnessed since the height of the civil rights movement in the ‘60s, which makes this year’s Black History Month all the more auspicious. It provides a means of opening up meaningful discussions among colleagues – of all races and ethnicities – to facilitate empathy and understanding, which is the bedrock for real progress.
Here are some ideas for recognizing Black History Month in your organization:
- Involve all employees in activities relating to this. Everyone must be educated about Black history in order to create a more culturally competent and inclusive workforce.
- “Celebrate” Black employees. Use the month as an opportunity to highlight the stories and achievements of employees, who wish to be recognized (not everyone does). Nye Jones, a certified diversity professional, says, “Celebrating BHM gives me an opportunity to be proud of something I was once taught to be ashamed of. Our Black history past does not dictate our future.”
- Offer a scholarship. Chevron offers a Black History Scholarship Program for high school senior students who have demonstrated scholastic achievement, community involvement and leadership skills. This is a great way to help address the education race/wealth gap that is compounded by being Black.
- Hire professionals to moderate productive group discussions about Black history with eclectic delegates. It is not the sole job or responsibility of Black people to educate their non-Black colleagues on being racially aware; it is a collaborative effort that involves all.
- Create an affinity group, like The Black Employee Network (BEN). Craig Ellis, a former network president says, “There’s a certain culture about corporate America. When you’re first generation, you don’t know the norms, the rituals, the taboos to watch out for. These affinity groups provide a way to interact and for people to show you the way and make you feel comfortable, especially early in your career.”
- Focus on a theme related to your organization’s work. This will make it relatable to all employees. Take inspiration from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It has highlighted important contributions of Black scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project, the top secret, World War II-era program that was the start of the nuclear age.
- Ask your employees how they would like to celebrate BHM. Most importantly, don’t relegate recognizing the achievements of your Black employees – or members of any minority group – to one month a year. Ensure that acknowledgment of all employees is part of a healthy and inclusive culture.
Headline photo: Nye Jones, certified diversity professional