Opinion: Celebrate and act on Black History Month

Black History Month 2023 / Getty Images
Black History Month 2023 / Getty Images

Honoring Black History Month often comes with events that tell African American history through arts and culture, which resonate across cultural boundaries. For example: the National Center for Civil and Human Rights will display jazz music that "inspires movements, evokes revolution, and lightens troubled spirits."

Corporate celebrations may elevate Black artists, creators, entrepreneurs through storytelling, content and products. But as memorable as these celebrations are, they may be considered once-a-year, check-the-box events.

Without commitment to sustained action, Black History Month celebrations may elicit considerable criticism, especially with heightened emotions following Tyre Nichols' brutal murder in Memphis. Forbes Magazine writer Dana Brownlee recently noted that despite the current sense of urgency, many organizations haven't adequately planned for Black History Month observances. Too often there is a January scramble to plan events, which reinforces what appears to be a lack of commitment. Programming budgets are minimal, which means key issues areas such as legal and political issues, health care disparities and gaps in education and housing are left unexplored.

Aware of the current context for Black History Month, many corporations deflect such criticism by demonstrating their year-round commitment to equity for the Black community. For example: Target communicates how its Black History Month events are not just "performative" celebrations, but are part of an ongoing program. The company supports historically Black colleges and universities and invests in Black-owned businesses, underscoring that 100% of its Black History Month product collection represents Black business owners or designers.

And it shouldn't be surprising when Laysha Ward, Target's executive vice president and chief external engagement officer, also urges individual responsibility for social justice:

"Creating racial equity starts with our personal behavior and actions," she wrote in a social media post. "We find ourselves again at a seminal moment in our history with the death of Tyre Nichols. We must all do our part in advancing social justice and racial equity. I believe in our ability to turn our pain and anguish into meaningful, lasting change by listening, learning and co-creating solutions with one another."

The drive to link Black History Month to both personal and corporate action isn't new. But the intensity is increasing at this historic time when the push to censor history seems to grow daily. Calls for political action are often denigrated as using the "race card." Recall that Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis recently rejected an AP class in African American history because it violated the state's "Stop WOKE Act".

Folks won't go quietly in this societal storm that echoes decades, even centuries, of racial injustice. I received evidence of that in my inbox this week from a fellow Harvard classmate. The university committed $100 million for an endowed "Legacy of Slavery Fund" after reports revealed profits from slavery-related industries provided university funding, several Harvard presidents owned slaves, science faculty tried to prove racial inferiority, and slaves were kept to serve on campus.

The letter noted that since Harvard's endowment is more than $53 billion, alums should petition for a several-billion dollar contribution to the fund. It asked me to sign the petition. I did. What would you have done? And what can we do next in these intensely divisive times?

Contact Deborah Levine, an author, trainer/coach and editor of the American Diversity Report, at deborah@diversityreport.com.