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‘Black history is American history’: How to educate yourself and work toward racial equity this month (and beyond)

MarketWatch logo MarketWatch 2/13/2021 Meera Jagannathan
Pauli Murray, Fannie Lou Hamer, Carter G. Woodson, Claudette Colvin, Lorraine Hansberry posing for the camera © MarketWatch photo illustration/Everett Collection, Library of Congress, iStockphoto

On the first Black History Month since the 2020 reckoning in response to racial injustice, a pandemic that has wreaked disproportionate havoc on communities of color, and new milestones in political representation, there are plenty of ways to honor and celebrate the historical contributions of Black Americans — while pushing for greater equity in the present and future.

The federally recognized celebration grew out of Negro History Week, an observance established in 1926 by author and historian Carter G. Woodson during the second week of February, which spans the birthdays of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass and the 16th U.S. president Abraham Lincoln. 

Demand grew in the 1960s for providing more education on African-American studies and extending the weeklong observance into a month, according to the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), an organization founded by Woodson. The observance was expanded to encompass all of February in 1976, and that year, former President Gerald Ford issued a message to mark the monthlong celebration. Congress in 1986 designated February as National Black History Month.

This year’s theme, ASALH says, is “The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity.”

Some say this Black History Month holds particular resonance: It comes amid COVID-19’s outsized impact on Black Americans’ health and financial security, and on the heels of nationwide police-brutality protests over the deaths of unarmed Black people such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

It also comes weeks after Vice President Kamala Harris was sworn into the highest office ever held by a Black woman in the U.S., and Sen. Rev. Raphael Warnock, a Democrat, became Georgia’s first Black senator.

This month is both a celebration of Black history and “a rallying kind of moment,” said Shantel Gabrieal Buggs, an assistant professor of African-American studies and sociology at Florida State University, noting that those historic firsts happened against a backdrop of significant losses over the past year. 

“People are interested in using this time not just as a time for reflection, but perhaps also [as] a time for drawing attention to the ways that Black people still experience a lot of significant inequality — and that these issues need to be addressed,” Buggs said.

Artist and organizer Patrisse Cullors, the executive director of Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation, added in a written response to MarketWatch: “Coming off 2020’s pandemic and reckoning with racial justice, we must ask ourselves how we want to show up, and commit ourselves in 2021 to the abolition of racism and white supremacy.” 

Here’s how to make the most of this Black History Month, and keep learning, evolving and contributing the rest of this year, and beyond:

Watch, read and absorb as much as you can

“The month is an expression of Black autonomy, and it reinforces that Black history is American history. Our history does not start with American slavery nor end with Dr. King — it is much more,” Cullors said. “Educate yourself on how inseparable the histories are and do not ask your Black colleagues or friends to teach you.”

There is no shortage of resources. To name a few: 

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is providing a variety of online programming for all ages, including a “protest word painting” event for kids, a conversation between the Rev. Jesse Jackson and his biographer, and an online exhibition of lawyer and civil-rights activist Pauli Murray’s life and family history. 

ASALH is also holding a virtual festival this month: Most of the events are free, save for a ticketed Feb. 20 marquee event featuring historian Henry Louis Gates, Jr. And through a partnership, Black Lives Matter and Scholars 4 Black Lives are posting daily installments of Black history to their Instagram accounts.

Meanwhile, PBS is premiering a handful of documentaries this month about the Black experience in American history and streaming about a dozen others, including films about civil-rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer, playwright and activist Lorraine Hansberry and the Freedom Riders. 

There are plenty of recent non-documentary film options too, even if they were shut out of the Golden Globes’ best-drama category this year — namely, “One Night in Miami,” the Regina King-directed dramatization of a February 1964 meeting of friends Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Jim Brown and Sam Cooke; “Judas and the Black Messiah,” a biopic of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton; and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” on Netflix an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1982 play starring Viola Davis and Chadwick Boseman in his final role.

As for books, expand beyond the anti-racism genre and read autobiographical works by Black Americans or thorough biographies of them, Buggs suggested. Try “My Life, My Love, My Legacy” by Coretta Scott King as told to the Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds, or the recently released “Just As I Am” by the trailblazing actress Cicely Tyson, who died last month at 96.

Don’t just learn about the struggles and traumas that Black people have experienced throughout history, Buggs said; also seek out stories about joy and happiness. Celebrate not just extraordinary feats, but also “the everyday things that people do to be happy and to care for others and to find joy,” she said.


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“It’s incredibly important to focus on the creativity, the impacts and the contributions that Black people have made,” added Arisha Hatch, the vice president and chief of campaigns at the civil-rights organization Color Of Change. “We are obviously in a fight for a world to have more humanity towards our families and communities, and yet we’ve deeply contributed to the success of this country.”

Work toward racial justice and equity in your personal and work life

“We think it’s really important that not only Black people, but our racial-justice allies really stop and take a look at the ways in which they have the power to improve the lives of Black people,” Hatch said.

That could be in examining diversity, equity and inclusion within your workplace; making a difference through how you spend your money, or in educating your child to be more inclusive of others at school, she suggested.

While Black people “should be celebrating Blackness in indulgence this month,” people who don’t identify as Black “need to immerse themselves in the history of anti-Blackness and interrogate how anti-Blackness shows up in their lives, and develop ways to reconcile that,” added Lourdes Ashley Hunter, the executive director of the Trans Women of Color Collective.

For more on how to become a lifelong ally, read what experts and activists told MarketWatch last summer.

Volunteer your time and donate your money

You can support your local NAACP or Urban League chapter, but you could also volunteer with a local community organization working on an issue that impacts people from all backgrounds but disproportionately affects many Black Americans, Buggs said. 

If you can afford it, donating is another option. Check out MarketWatch’s guide to making charitable donations that support racial equity.

Hunter suggested giving to Black-led organizations and groups that center the narratives and leadership of marginalized individuals, including people of color and LGBTQ people. “Don’t just donate; develop relationships with these organizations that are sustainable,” added Hunter, who uses the pronoun Goddess.

Support Black-owned businesses and take the 15% pledge

Black business owners are more likely than their white counterparts to be denied bank loans, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Minority Business Development Agency, and more likely to use personal savings and credit cards to launch their businesses.

Black businesses were also hit particularly hard by COVID-19-induced economic shutdowns, and most were either denied or ineligible for Paycheck Protection Program loans offered through last spring’s CARES Act, one estimate found.

“When I think about the history in which Black businesses have not been able to compete with their non-Black counterparts, it’s in part due to some of the structural issues that have made it difficult for them to do so,” said Charisse Conanan Johnson, a managing partner at the small-business advisory firm Next Street and author of the forthcoming book “A Wealthy Girl: 7 Steps to Prosperity, Peace, and Personal Power.”

Educate yourself on the history of Black-owned businesses — MarketWatch has a guide right here — and then make an effort to support them, experts say.

“We know that economic justice is inextricably linked to racial justice and there is a huge racial-wealth gap in this country,” Cullors said. “We encourage people to invest in Black organizations, Black-owned businesses, Black authors, and Black artists that are fighting for Black lives and futures.”

The 15 Percent Pledge, an initiative that encourages major retailers to commit at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses — mirroring the share of the U.S. population identifying as Black or mixed-race — has signed on companies like Macy’s Sephora and Bloomingdale’s. 

But LaToya Williams-Belfort, the nonprofit’s executive director, encourages individual consumers to take a 15% pledge of their own. Take stock of how you spend your money each month, then reallocate 15% toward Black businesses, Black entrepreneurs and corporations committed to promoting equity, she said.

Learn about lesser-known figures in Black history

“So much of the standard Black history that we’re taught in school [is] civil rights, MLK, Rosa Parks and that’s it,” Buggs said. “There’s lots of unsung people, if you just start to look around.”

You’ve read about Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X and James Baldwin, but what do you know about Esther Jones, Claudette Colvin and Bessie Coleman?

Check out this book on the history of Black Americans in Congress from 1870 to 2007. Dig into the history of African-American cowboys, who remain underrepresented in pop culture despite having accounted for one in four cowboys, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

And explore “Black Quotidian,” a website and book by the Dartmouth College history professor Matthew Delmont, who pairs a collection of 20th-century archived clippings from African-American newspapers with context and commentary. His project seeks to emphasize that “black history can be mundane, not only triumphant or tragic,” he wrote in an introduction.

“For ‘Black Quotidian,’ I chose to focus on African-American newspapers because I wanted to focus on the lives, and not only the deaths, of Black people,” Delmont added. “Violence against Black people was a frequent topic in Black newspapers, but so too were debutante balls, dentists, dolls, and discos.”

Johnson, for her part, wants to pay homage to Black family matriarchs who “do not get the airtime.” She says the story of her 92-year-old maternal grandmother, Naomi Shine, is emblematic of the many migrants who moved from the South to the North as part of the Second Great Migration. Shine didn’t have tangible wealth, Johnson said, but brought with her a rich family history, perseverance in the face of “real, stark racism,” and a story that transcended and enriched future generations.

“My grandmother is still living — creating stability, creating a rich history, often a history that’s untold.” She said she is also able to give her perspective from the experience of Black Americans in the 1930s and 1940s, Johnson said. “I want to honor folks like that.”

In the same vein, the newly published biography “The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation,” by Anna Malaika Tubbs, details the lives and little-known contributions of Alberta King, Louise Little and Berdis Baldwin. 

Don’t just educate yourself on Black history, practice allyship or contribute to racial-equity organizations during the month of February. “We are Black year-round, so you should be committed to anti-racism year-round, too, not just in February,” Cullors said.

At the same time, avoid punishing or belittling yourself — or others — if you try really hard in February and then fall off for a while, Buggs added. “You can always come back to it,” she said. “There’s a reason that these things are a practice, and they take work.”

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