An Alternate View of Black History Month

Image by Daniel Fishel for The Washington Post

There’s no doubt that we Americans need to know more about Black history. There’s also no doubt that even as we recognize the need to root out white supremacy and institutional racism in all its manifestations, more and more white Americans have become aware of the racial injustices that continue to mar our country as we seek to live up to our ideals. But is a “celebration of Black History Month” a meaningful contribution to that moral imperative? Ernest Owens, a journalist in Philadelphia, thinks not.

In an Op Ed in The Washington Post, Owens explains why “I don’t need or want corporations celebrating Black History Month.”

Here is his essay in its entirety.

“The first day of the month brought yet another yearly reminder of why I’ve grown to cringe every February as a Black American. Soon after receiving a thoughtless ‘Happy Black History Month’ email from a White colleague, a friend messaged me with a crying emoji. ‘And they made Siri say it’” she wrote with a screenshot of her White employer’s ‘Happy Black History Month’ text with the Apple notification stating that it was sent from the monotone virtual assistant. She punctuated that with a skull emoji. We both had to laugh to keep from crying. A boss from a Fortune 500 company couldn’t even muster the consideration to pander to her with his own fingertips.

“It became clear we were in for a month of empty platitudes after a year that had already been filled with tons of them. Just like Pride Month, Black History Month has become a routine time of year when corporations say the absolute most while doing the least for marginalized communities. As a Black queer millennial, I’ve grown tired of both June and February because I find myself feeling more insulted than inspired by the way the same companies who deny both of my identities any other time of the year find it suddenly mandatory to suggest otherwise.

“This month we can expect organizations to post statements, graphics and video clips on social media filled with blanket declarations of ‘celebrating’ Black history and culture. Watch as your White boss tries to get ‘creative’ and find a way to ‘get staff in the spirit’ in the most offensive ways. Once a teacher gave me a gift wrapped in Kente cloth when I was a part-time after-school program coordinator a few years ago. (I have yet to burn that sage-scented candle she thought was going to make me ‘beam with Black Boy Joy.’)

“After the racial uprisings of last summer, you would think White people would have gotten the hint that such superficial attempts to address Black inequity are worthless. I had hoped that after all of the Black Lives Matter conversations, woke book clubs and anti-racism virtual trainings, White people had learned some valuable lessons.

“Corporations also tried to wrap themselves in the flag of racial justice with the most basic ways to express their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. UberEats waived delivery fees for users ordering from Black-owned restaurants (although they may have allowed restaurants who were not Black-owned to take advantage of that). Warner Bros. offered free rentals of the movie ‘Just Mercy.’ NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell apologized for not supporting athletes protesting against police brutality — even though former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick never got his job back.

“Since then, much still hasn’t changed.

“There’s only been one Black woman added to the Fortune 500 CEO club, Silicon Valley remains a White tech bro scene, and much of the enthusiasm to address racial equity and ‘keep the conversation going’ has died down across the board.

“All of this makes it hard to stomach Facebook displaying a Black History Month illustration while advocacy organizations, such as Color for Change, recently had to demand a civil rights accountability infrastructure from the company following years of reported racial bias.

“It was difficult to scroll down my Twitter timeline and watch CBS News post a clip of Rosa Parks speaking on injustice after the news that another investigation has to be conducted into allegations of racial discrimination at the media company.

“Until corporations find concrete ways to address the ongoing ways they directly hurt Black communities, they should stop their farcical marketing campaigns celebrating Black History Month. This month shouldn’t be an excuse for companies to roll out PR stunts or attempt to absolve themselves from true accountability. Instead, it should be a time for corporate executives to move away from the aesthetics and the token compliments and find ways to invest their money, resources and power back into the hands of a community that’s been disproportionately exploited and erased. [emphasis mine]

“Right now, Black History Month is more about corporations telling us how they appreciate Black culture instead of showing us. Reparations, reallocation of resources, and honest and transparent reassessments of current racist power structures are more desirable than copy-and-paste greetings sent by Siri.

“Tangible actions are the only things that could be worth ‘celebrating’ from corporations in February. Anything less is just more unnecessary lip service.”

___________________________

Do you agree with Owens? Think he’s off the mark? Any experiences of your own to offer?

Annie

10 thoughts on “An Alternate View of Black History Month

  1. Beam with Black Boy Joy? Oh my goodness, I hardly know how to respond to that. In general, I’d have to say that I agree with dispensing with the tokenism and getting to the issue of the realignment of power, resources, and opportunity.

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  2. Oh yes, I fully agree with him. Condescension and platitudes do NOT erase the racism and other forms of bigotry that are running rampant today. Yes, Black Lives Matter! I taught Black History at the college level for many years, and each year a few students came to me, asked questions, were amazed to learn how Blacks and other minorities have been treated in this country. But every year, the majority walked out unfazed, unconcerned, laughing and joking. This is the United States today. White supremacist groups are protected, police who kill unarmed Black men are granted immunity, and every single day, this nation takes a step backward in time, to a time when Black people were considered 2/3 of a person, had no rights to vote, to send their children to school, or even to walk the streets unattended. Sigh. Stepping off my soapbox now … sorry.

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    1. So interesting that you taught Black History to college students—and so disturbing that there was so little interest. I still harbor the hope—based on the many young people who participated in the BLM demonstrations—that this generation is more accepting of differences. The hate mongers make a lot of noise and can create a lot of damage, but they’re still a minority. And they know it; that’s why they’re increasingly unhinged.
      I feel that this is a pivotal time for our country in terms of race. We just have to get things right this time: fight the Jim Crow laws popping up in various places, and do our damnedest to elect as many people committed to the ideal of America as we possibly can. Black voters, particularly women, saved our democracy, and we have work to do at the state and local levels to ensure that we build on what we have now so that the Biden-Harris administration has an even bigger mandate after the 2022 elections. (I’ve said I wish we could clone Stacey Abrams and drop her into every state.)

      Please don’t apologize for your soapbox; I do the same thing quite often. I appreciate your comment and am glad you came to visit.

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      1. I find there are three basic thoughts on the matter of racism: a) those of us who see it clearly and know it to be wrong; b) those who do not see it, think it doesn’t exist, that all people are treated equally; c) those who know it exists but believe (or claim to believe) that Black people are somehow inferior and have brought it all upon themselves.

        I like to think that today’s young people see more clearly than our own generation did, and that they will make the world a better place. However, we were young and hopeful once, but what happened to our generation? We went out into the world, learned that money is king, and suddenly nothing mattered so much as making a buck anymore. We forgot about causes and issues that once mattered. I hope we see progress in the future generation, and I remain hopeful because they have lived through things we never had to, so perhaps their eyes are opened wider than ours. Fingers crossed, anyway.

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  3. I agree with Owens. In general, I feel weird about many of these named months. It seems like they give people implicit permission to ignore the given societal issue du mois for the rest of the year. I appreciate Owens’ suggestion to make “reparations, reallocation of resources, and honest and transparent reassessments of current racist power structures”. That sounds like a worthy annual effort–a moral inventory and reckoning of sorts.

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  4. Thank you—for joining me at annieasksyou and so generously liking and commenting on several posts. I’m delighted to have your participation and support. How shall I address you? Do you prefer S. Destinie Jones?

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