Posting about Black History Month on the first day of February feels a bit performative.
It’s what the big corporations do. It’s when the universities send out their marketing emails themed around their alumni of color.
You may not even really understand what Black History Month is about. Many Americans don’t.
The truth of the matter is that all of American history is Black history, but that’s not the history that’s taught in our grade schools. It’s not the history that white Americans know. Many Americans believe that slavery ended racism, and that all races are treated equally today.
So here’s little impromptu quiz for you:
Can you name three important Americans who shaped our history, who happen to be Black — and who aren’t celebrities or named Barack Obama?
No shade on Obama and musicians and athletes. However this challenge is meant to illuminate the issue.
Maybe you’re well aware of the contributions that Black people and other people of color have made to this country. But if you’re like many Americans, the names don’t come to mind with the snap of your fingers.
Maybe you thought about it for a hot second, and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. popped into your head.
Or Rosa Parks.
And probably Obama, and maybe Tiger, and Kanye, and JayZ, and Beyonce, and Kobe, and Muhammed Ali. All of those success stories matter too. However it’s telling that many of you probably struggled to come up with lots of names of people who brought change to this country, who moved us forward as a nation, or in business.
Actually, that’s a great question in itself: Name some Black business leaders, like CEOs or technologists or startup founders. Can you think of any?
We’ve got Erika James, Dean of Wharton. And we’ve got….
Unless you count self-made millionaires like Oprah and LilWayne and JayZ who are running their own corporations, there are almost no Black CEOs in the Fortune 500 today — apparently only 4. Though TIAA now will have its second Black CEO in a row.
We shouldn’t have to have a Black History Month, because Black history is American history, and it all should be taught together, equally, without Black contributions having to be called out separately — because those contributions should be integrated into the fabric of the stories we tell each other about how our country developed. We shouldn’t have to isolate Black history to be studied separately, or to have a page of the calendar relegated to remembering to talk about it.
Until that happens, though, we’ll be recognizing Black history here — maybe not on the first day of February, when all the corporations have scheduled their social media campaigns, but somewhere along the way. And we will be continuing to talk about the inequalities, and the need for concerted efforts on the part of whites in this country to bring changes to the system so that all have true opportunity, regardless of background or resources or skintone.
In case you had trouble thinking of Black historymakers and people of influence, here are a random few:
- James Baldwin – writer
- W. E. B. DeBois – one of the founders of the NAACP
- Angela Davis – activist
- Maya Angelou – poet
- Frederick Douglass – abolitionist
This list could be much longer, though we’re more curious in the names that you know.
Who did you think of?
And, if you’re a Black person looking to become a leader in our American business world, the Executive Leadership Council is one resource to know of.