How should we commemorate Black
History Month? Should corporations, universities, and nonprofit
organizations bring in speakers, beat drums, and eat soul food?
Should folks take out ads in the media lifting up Black
accomplishments? Should there be moments of silence, should folks
lift the special folks in their organizations who commemorate
history? Or should we keep it real and call our nation out on the
ways that Black history has been manipulated, distorted, and ignored?
In the name of Carter G. Woodson, the founder of the Association for
the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), can we firmly
support the teaching of truth in educational institutions?
not talking about critical race theory, a legal concept that is only
occasionally taught in undergraduate schools but primarily presented
in our nation’s law schools. Somehow the history deniers have
managed to propose laws in most states to regulate the way race is
taught in schools. These laws would prevent teaching content that
would make students “uncomfortable” or “guilty”.
In other words, legislators say that teachers can’t tell the
understand the discomfort. I know it personally. I’ll never
forget my seventh-grade Catholic school classroom when a sister who
looked like she had jumped off an Aunt Jemima pancake box was
pictured in the textbook, and the nun looked at me directly before
saying that enslavement “wasn’t that bad.” It might
have been my mom’s eighth or ninth bus trip to the school to
tell them about history.
Tell me about it. For the next week or so, I was hazed by classmates
who told me that I used to be enslaved. No matter. I gave as good as
I got, and the truth was that my foremothers and forefathers were
enslaved. Nobody cared about my discomfort nor the distorted version
of history my classmates and I were force-fed. And nobody cared that
white children were also being fed a distortion that allowed them to
feel superior to me and to incorporate racism into the way they saw
I have a message to those corporations doing these Black History
Commemorations, ads and sales. Stop it! We ain’t stupid. We
aren’t buying your stuff because you genuflected to a moment.
If you are really about Black History, why not support Black people,
on the real? Why not put your corporate weight into the fight for
voting rights? Why not treat your employees fairly. We don’t
need to see your ads; we need to see your action.
the hard part, though. It means changing your mind and shifting your
consciousness. It means understanding how racism is baked into the
cake we call America. It means calling it out, and it means
investigating the many ways your corporation benefited from racism.
If you are an insurance company, did your company insure enslaved
people? Did you pay when they were murdered because they were the
property that you insured? If you are a bank, did you issue bonds to
corrupt and vicious enslavers? What were the profits and how do they
manifest to this day? If you don’t want to deal with these
issues, perhaps you can hire an historian or empower your employees
to go through your archives. Or do you think that these questions are
going to go away?
are living in a moment of reckoning. The murders of George Floyd and
Breonna Taylor have reminded us that Black Lives Matter because
heretofore, Black Life has been considered cheap. We must call their
names and sing their song this month. The singing and swaying, the
renditions of Lift Every Voice, and We Shall Overcome are poetic and
powerful, but action is even more powerful. Corporate America could
change public opinion if it chose to own its role in our nation’s
an ugly history, but it is also a powerful one. As Dr. Martin Luther
King, Jr. often said, “the arc of the moral universe is long,
but it bends toward justice.” Corporate America can accelerate
the slope of the arc if they are willing to share its role in
exploiting Black people. I’m not expecting corporate America to
do the right thing. I’m just offering a possibility that makes
sense and can make a difference.