Black History Month is a time to remember the countless contributions of African Americans despite political pushback

February 3, 2023, 3:34 PM UTC
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (C) accepting the applause of partygoers Susan Taylor, Rita Dove, Oprah Winfrey, Angela Davis, Maya Angelou & others; Winston-Salem.
Will And Deni McIntyre—Getty Images

Happy Friday.

We owe Toni Morrison so much.

“[T]he act of imagination is bound up with memory,” she wrote in What Moves in the Margina selection of her essays. “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact, it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be.”

The long, slow, collective act of recalling an under-documented and violent Black past was a central theme in Morrison’s novels. In her way of seeing, the past hovers near the present, often washing over its banks in a flood of reckoning. Of course, she had a word for this: “Rememory.” She described it as “recollecting and remembering as in reassembling the members of the body, the family, the population of the past.”

Recollecting, reassembling, and imagining anew is what we all have to do right now.

This Black History Month offers a perfect Morrisonian opportunity to bear witness to the rememories of a Black past and invest in rebuilding it on higher ground. To do any less would be a dereliction of duty, says C.D. Glin, president of PepsiCo Foundation and global head of philanthropy at PepsiCo Inc.

“It should be clear the reason we even have a Black History Month is due to this nation’s ongoing failure to acknowledge the countless contributions of Black people, even in a society that’s more woke to the realities of institutional racism than previous generations,” he tells raceAhead by email. “This day and age, there should be no debate that Black History or African American studies should be widely studied, taught, and celebrated without restriction.” Don’t expect a single post or panel to do the job, he says. “Those of us interested in celebrating Black history need to be actually making Black history in our own backyards by confronting racism wherever we encounter it. This is perhaps the best way corporations can truly celebrate Black History Month.”

Whatever skin you sit in, you can become part of the story we will later tell ourselves about how the world showed up.

Make your way to the panels and screenings your colleagues have diligently planned, and add some race- or history-themed books, films, or podcasts to your media diet. Enjoy films made by Black artists that manage to entertain without relying on familiar tropes that cater to white audiences. And be kind to the Black-owned small businesses that are always so popular this month. But most of all, listen carefully to the stories of real people doing the work, including your colleagues—many of whom you may not yet know—who continue to navigate a workplace still haunted by an unclaimed past.

One of Morrison’s books offers a clue. 

Morrison is lesser known for the extraordinary project she curated while working as an editor at Random House. The Black Book, first published in 1974, was a 200-page collection of images and recollections—a memory book, if you will—drawn from an array of sources, like news clippings, advertisements, journal accounts, obituaries, and photos of objects of ordinary life used by Black people from enslavement through Jim Crow. She included a section on patent applications, she said, to show that African Americans were “busy, smart and not just minstrelized.”

It was her way of pointing out the high cost of small erasures.

“I remember my mother used to say, ‘Do you know that a Negro invented shoes?’” Morrison told NPR when the book was re-released in 2009. “And I said, ‘Mama, everybody invented shoes. How could you not think of how to cover your feet?’ But when I was doing this book, I saw a ‘shoe-lasting machine.’ So she was sort of right.”

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ruth Umoh.

On Background

"Black History Month is for everyone. Everyone can be an advocate and help implement initiatives during this month," says Tracey Jenkins, senior vice president of HR at Sodexo Live! Start small, she advises, and I agree.

Think of this year as a "choose your own adventure," a chance to fill gaps in your knowledge and experience, and to dig into the kinds of stories you may have missed in school. “My favorite podcast is Code Switch, which is a great discussion of current topics around race and class,” says Jenkins.

I’ll be sharing my favorites among the newest BHM fare this month—Hulu’s The 1619 Project is a must-watch, for example. But I want to kick us off with an extraordinary video series that is an excellent resource for those worried about the erasure of Black history and themes in school curricula and libraries.

Poet, journalist, and author Clint Smith has partnered with the Crash Course web series creators John Green and Hank Green to create a crash course on Black American history.

The super-vlogging, award-winning Green brothers have been teaching and delighting kids and young adults for a long time, and they’re trusted voices in online learning. In a series of tweets announcing the final episode, Smith said it took three years and 51 episodes to complete. It’s a gift to the canon, hitting at just the right time.

“From the start, we wanted to ensure we were making something that captured the complexity, the heterogeneity, and the expansiveness of Black life. We wanted to show how Blackness is not monolithic and how Black people are not singularly defined by the violence we’ve experienced,” Smith said.

Parting Words

"I fell asleep in front of the television and woke up, and The Antiques Roadshow was on, and I had never seen it before. And I thought, ‘What a really good idea!’ So we renamed it 'Save Our African-American Treasures' and went around the country helping people not bring us to collections—but to preserve grandma's old shawl or that 19th-century photograph. It brought hundreds of people out to share their stories. And I remember so powerfully a grandfather talking to his grandson about a plow. He brought a plow head, and he said, ‘Let me talk to you about how hard it was to plow.’ And you could suddenly see that he was telling something that he had never shared before. And he starts crying, telling his grandson what he went through. And so, for me, this was really the way to make sure that we heard the stories of—you know, Nat Turner and Harriet Tubman—but also the stories of people who were famous only to their family."

Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, on the development of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

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