Credit: Daniel Lee

We’re now a week into Black History Month. In the newer, welcomingly woke world order, the “mainstreaming” of celebration months and holidays like Juneteenth, Day of the Dead, and Diwali can be fraught with people (often unintentionally) doing or saying the wrong thing.

For ideas on how to best commemorate this month, I turned to a predominantly Black group of diversity, inclusion and equity experts, human resources leaders, marketing managers, program planners, and other professionals.

Caveat number one: Some of these suggestions are quick fixes with a plea that if you didn’t plan ahead, you need to do better. Caveat number two: Don’t limit yourself or your organization to this one month of the year. Significantly, the people I interviewed resoundingly asked companies to implement year-round programs and practices that better center Black culture, history, and people.

Pay Black speakers, vendors, and businesses for their work—and worth.

It’s the request Anton Gunn, who runs the leadership consultancy 937 Strategy Group, seemingly gets all through February. “I am sick of being insulted by Black friends who call me to ‘speak for their company’s Black history program,’ but they have zero budget to compensate me,” says the once South Carolina legislator and former Obama administration adviser. “I appreciate your commitment to diversity and highlighting Black voices. But why doesn’t your company place any monetary value on that commitment by paying me for my labor? As the descendant of people who were not compensated for their labor, I am appalled that your company is using you and me to continue the exploitation.”

Exposure is not enough, nor is a cup of coffee, says Mita Mallick, head of inclusion, equity, and impact at Carta, who similarly stresses the importance of equitable compensation.

“If you are inviting Black speakers to come and speak at your company, honor their expertise by paying them,” on time and in full, says Mallick. “Not in exchange for audience exposure, Starbucks gift cards, or for being mentioned in the company’s social-media post. And ensure they are being paid fairly and equitably versus other speakers you are paying.”

Support Black media.

Sure, you pay for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, but does your office have a subscription to Black Enterprise? Or WURD, which serves Black Philadelphia; Black Voice News, in California’s inland empire; Scalawag magazine’s Race & Place coverage to understand how race and segregation work today; or PushBlack, which shares empowering stories on history, criminal justice, and voting rights, among other issues, all year-round? (Disclosure: The aforementioned are members of the URL Media network, the company I run. You can subscribe to our newsletters here; we’re proudly Black-owned, too.)

And subscribing is just one step. Amplifying the outlets you’re consuming is another. “For employers looking to recognize Black History Month, consider supporting and uplifting the work of Black-owned media and nonprofit organizations, like PushBlack and others, by donating to and promoting the work,” says Lilly Workneh, chief content officer of PushBlack. “Also, consider extending that support beyond the month of February. We should all recognize that Black life and history always matter.”

Another recommendation from Carol Watson, global chief inclusion officer at communications firm BCW: “Listen to one episode of Dr. Kidada E. Williams’ Seizing Freedom podcast,” she says. “Afterwards, have a discussion with your colleagues to share your observations and takeaways.”

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Promote up-and-coming talent, and the old-timers, too.

Black history lives in your organization. As the opening lines of the just-released documentary series “The 1619 Project” remind us: “Almost nothing in our country has been left untouched by the legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans.”

Two ideas from Doug Melville, a longtime diversity executive: “Highlight colleagues by sharing the voices and stories through images or videos of people that work in the organization. And inspire through the future; look at people throughout your industry that are becoming known for change and bring more awareness to their efforts.” Melville is also author of the forthcoming book Invisible Generals, which traces the story of his family beginning with America’s first two Black generals.

Indeed, Gunn suggests similarly “highlighting the company’s Black employees who currently work there, particularly the people who have been pioneers,” such as the first Black manager and first Black c-level executive. If there hasn’t yet been a second or third yet, ask yourself—and company leadership—why.

Get out into the community.

Black organizations need your support. “For Black history organizations and museums, this is the best time of the year. Historians, docents, researchers and tour guides get more business and support than they normally might in the tourism-dry winter months,” says Sage Hamilton-Hazarika, marketing consultant for the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State.

Think about using this month to launch something that will continue beyond Black History Month, suggests Mira Lowe, dean of the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication at Florida A&M University: “Go out into Black communities and intentionally contribute to and connect with those there through service. Look for ways to have impact.”

FAMU, where she works, is the only public historically Black university in Florida, a state where Governor Ron DeSantis is currently making it much harder for Americans to learn the truth about their history. Lowe suggests encouraging organizational leaders and staff to cultivate relationships with historically Black colleges and universities to speak and/or volunteer. Forging these relationships also helps employers establish talent pipelines for internships and jobs, she says, and lays the groundwork for further support, such as “donat[ing] to or start[ing] a scholarship or fellowship to support academic success, professional development, or research.”

Allow your employees to take part in community service and events, says Daniel Oppong, founder of diversity, equity, and inclusion consultancy The Courage Collective. His suggestions, developed along with colleagues Michael Polite, Nani Vishwanath, and Sunday Helmerich:

  • February offers many external events and shows produced by Black voices. Become a sponsor for one of these events in your community and offer to either subsidize or fully cover the cost for your employees to attend.
  • Hold an employee book club. Seek out recommendations, from Black employees and experts alike, for a read that celebrates the achievements and accomplishments of a Black professional. Don’t just look to the past—seek out contemporary examples, too.

Finally, ask yourself what your brand can do that would have deep community impact, says Myles Worthington, CEO and founder of the ethnographic marketing company Worthi. “Black audiences now more than ever are looking for action, not just words,” he says, “especially in this recent realization that so many brands had proclamations in June 2020 and very few made good on them.”

Socialize and celebrate Black joy.

Oftentimes, the history of Black people in America is presented primarily or entirely as a narrative linked to trauma, violence, and resilience. But it’s possible—and just as important—to center Black joy, from the arts to entrepreneurship.

“Host a happy hour,” suggests Melville. And look for other ways to celebrate Black innovation, especially ones that directly involve Black creators and Black-owned businesses. Bald Cypress Media president Robert Pierre mentions a successful event as an example: a wine tasting with a Black sommelier catered by African-American chefs. “There is a big rise in Black-owned spirits in recent years,” he says. (Read about some of them here; I am a big fan of Bayab African gin.)

Acknowledge really mixed feelings about Black History Month.

When I first approached Pierre to share some ideas, he sent me a long, thoughtful email begging off: “After George Floyd and of the upheaval and corporate angst, it sort of feels like Black History Month and corporate America don’t go together anymore. Their actions feel performative.”

I sent him back a note saying I wish more people talked about this aspect of Black History Month. And so I asked other Black professionals: Do you have weird feelings about a month to celebrate you?

Indeed, February can trigger a range of emotions, and it’s important to understand why it might be difficult for some Black people.

For example, “it’s an unfortunate coincidence that the shortest calendar month of the year is the one this country designates for the nationwide recognition of Black history, but it was also Black historians and changemakers who lobbied to make it happen,” notes Hamilton-Hazarika. “Don’t assume how someone feels about the month because of their ethnicity or nationality. Especially if you’re working in a predominantly white space, it can feel tone-deaf when an organization drops ‘business as usual’ to pay special attention to Black rights and issues.”

Lastly, he suggests not getting defensive: “If a Black person takes issue with your approach to acknowledging Black History Month, listen to them!”

Remember that Black history is American history, LGBTQ+ history, Latino history, disabled history, and on and on.

Approach this month as a time to celebrate the nuance and intersectionality of Black communities. Hopefully, you are thinking of ways to weave programming into other heritage months, as well.

“Think deeply about the nuances across Black identities. Ensure you’re platforming Black trans people, Afro Latinx people, Black Gen Z to Boomers, Black queer women, etc.,” says Worthington. “Speaking to those specific communities is so powerful, and oftentimes receives an outsized reaction given how rare brands really understand those nuances.”

There are quotes besides “I have a dream.”

Especially because many companies kick off their Black history commemorations with the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day a few weeks earlier, there can feel an overdependence on King and his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

“There are so many King quotes that companies could pull out of the darkness and bring into a new light great insights by simply exposing them,” says Jerome Saintjones, director of marketing and public relations for Alabama A&M University, a historically Black public university. And, for that matter, so many quotes from other Black leaders and thinkers. For example, he says, “Think of the sheer beauty of Zora Neale Hurston that thousands of businesses could ‘rediscover’ by taking the time to do a deeper dive.”

Saintjones shares a few of what he calls “Zora pearls”:

  • “Bitterness is the coward’s revenge on the world for having been hurt.”
  • “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
  • “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Another King quote worth reflecting upon and sharing with employees comes from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail:

“I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice….”

And remember, a celebration of Black history really needs to happen all year long.

Black history is made every day, not just February. If you are a global company, remember that other countries do celebrate at different times (in the UK and the Netherlands, for example, Black History Month is in October). “When creating or developing ideas or programming around BHM, it’s important to realize BHM is a US-based celebration that takes place in February,” Melville reminds.

Indeed, I just received a Black History Month email from Mattel with a link to Black dolls and figures. Its language is noteworthy and self-aware: “We’re proud to recognize and honor the Black community this month and all year round. See inspiring products that promote diversity and inclusion.”

“You can be authentic during Black History Month, but if it isn’t married with consistency” before and after February, says Worthington, “you’re just creating a performative moment in time that will not acquire or retain their loyalty. So many brands turn the lights off as soon as the month is over, which is very noticeable, to say the least.”

Ask yourself: What’s a program or campaign that might endure beyond the remaining 21 days in February, the 22 days before Women’s History Month, the 220 days till Hispanic Heritage Month, the 327 days left in the year? Best get moving.

In the spirit of publicly giving credit where it’s due, Arya Royal of URL Media contributed research and reporting to this piece. It’s her last week, and I want to acknowledge that she’s been a crucial part of the coordination and scheduling required to keep this weekly column going.

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