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How companies can more meaningfully celebrate Black History Month this year

January 17, 2023, 7:54 PM UTC
Tri-color poster celebrating Black History Month with a small heart drawn in the center
Getty Images

A few years ago, I caught up with chef, author, and culinary historian Michael Twitty to talk about what passes, or doesn’t, for the celebration of Black culture in corporate life. “People are trying to be sensitive by serving ‘classic’ soul food dishes,” he says, of the many ways large companies have traditionally marked moments like Juneteenth or Black History Month. “But we can do better than fried chicken.”

That line has stuck with me ever since.

Twitty burst into the public conversation about race, identity, and heritage in 2018 with his award-winning book The Cooking Gene, which explores the legacy of food, family, and culture in the American South. But his larger point has always been that the erasure of the full expression of Black history and culture is a central tenet of American life.

It’s not just the creative Black chefs, drawing on a rich heritage of culinary innovation, who struggle to find an audience in a landscape populated by white celebrity chefs, he says. It’s also about the reality of the food service industry, which is still disproportionately impacted by COVID. It’s about inequity. “Who are the people preparing the food?” he asks, noting that kitchen staffers are often raising families that live and languish in food deserts. “What I know from my own travels is that the people working in the kitchens of the restaurants, corporations, schools, and other institutions are rarely the ones who are eating well.” 

And therein lies the conundrum of Black History Month in 2023, a year that promises new and alarming challenges to the many inclusion goals set in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. How to celebrate in the face of new assaults and unkept promises? From the widening racial wealth gap to the ongoing and disproportionate impact of COVID to the now daily attacks on diversity and inclusion initiatives, Black History Month feels less like a beacon and more like a disappointing bellwether.

Can the corporate community do better than fried chicken this year?

I know what I would do if I were in charge, but I’m more interested in what ­you are actually doing:

– For DEI practitioners, how have you learned to acknowledge the needs and contributions of wage-earning Black employees in your plans? How does your celebration benefit the broader community or other stakeholders?

– For Black leaders and workers, what do you want to see? What do you not want to see? How should this year be different?

– For ERG leaders and participants, how have you learned to make the month more intersectional?

– For white or majority culture leaders, what experiences have you had in the workplace that helped you better understand the specific work of Black racial justice? Did an occurrence during Black History Month play a role?

Help me spread the word—find me on social media or write back, subject line: Black History Month.

Ellen McGirt
@ellmcgirt
Ellen.McGirt@fortune.com

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

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On Background: Food

Longtime readers know I relish the opportunity to bring you the hidden racist history of everything. In the food category, there are the tasteless tomatoes in your salad, the erased African and Native American influence in barbeque, and the man who actually created Jack Daniels. I mention them because, well, racism, but also because the world is more interesting when you understand the origin story and the people whose names are conveniently left off the page.

This brings me to a staple dish in the Black community: macaroni and cheese.

The feel-good favorite comes to the world by way of Italy and has been around for centuries. But the uniquely American version that appears at so many picnics and on Thanksgiving tables comes from James Hemings (1765-1801), a culinary innovator, master chef, and brother of a woman you likely know, Sally. Both were enslaved by Thomas Jefferson, who had the additional audacity to take credit for the dish.

Hemings was trained as a French chef and had enormous influence in what we now politely call the colonies. In addition to mac and cheese, he introduced crème brulée, meringues, ice cream, and french fries to elite diners in the U.S. When bitter enemies Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, along with James Madison, sat down to “hammer out their differences” in 1790, Hemings cooked the meal. 

This is a pretty big accomplishment for an enslaved person. 

So, history, while it can be delicious, can also be deceiving. And this anecdote proves that it does make a difference who is in the room when it happens.

Parting Words

“When you control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his 'proper place' and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”

—Carter G. Woodson, scholar, and founder of what became Black History Month, from The Mis-Education of the Negro

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