What began in 1962 as Black History Week is observed today throughout the entire month of February in our country. Or not… It all depends on how much it matters to you personally, I guess. For black historian, Carter G. Woodson, it was important enough to initiate the observance in the first place, because he believed that appreciating a people’s history was an essential prerequisite to equality. Not that the value of African American history can be confined to a week-long focus or a month-long celebration, but without knowing the history and worthwhile traditions of a race, “it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world.“ In other words, marginalized…which is why it remains essential to intentionally “appreciate” the histories, traditions, and contributions of different races 365 days a year.
Black History Month helps us to do that — by recognizing the central role of African-Americans in U.S. history; celebrating the individual and collective achievements of Black Americans who have paved the way for all of us to thrive; and spreading stories of people who have historically been misunderstood, oppressed, ignored, and overlooked in our country.
The contributions of both African and African-American to our society are undeniable. Yet, for most of us, their experiences, discoveries, and perspectives were not an integral part of our formal education. Few of us learned about Ida B. Wells in school, as a leader in the women’s suffrage and anti-lynching movements. Not many know that Asa Randolph worked alongside Bayard Rustin to organize the powerful and peaceful March on Washington in 1963. Only recently has the mathematical genius of Katherine Johnson and other “hidden figures,” such as Dr. Marjorie Lee Browne, been recognized and applauded. And who knew that Joseph Graves would rise from Special Ed in kindergarten during the sixties to receive a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology and scientifically prove there is no “biological legitimacy to our socially constructed racial categories”?
Sadly, the narratives we’re more familiar with perpetuate inaccurate stereotypes, biases, and prejudices. Black History Month helps correct the narrative – highlighting missing pieces of our country’s history, and more importantly, the people who helped make it. It sets apart time to consider our own biases, stereotypes, gaps in knowledge, and relationships across racial differences – “forcing” us to reflect on our past, assess our present, and anticipate our future. To ask the hard questions, take responsibility for being part of the answer, and defy the distorted generalizations of previous generations.
In recent decades, diversity and inclusion have become quite the buzzwords in the workplace, and while it’s true that there’s been an increase of both, what we need more than ever is an increased sense of belonging and appreciation for our differences.
In fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, “cognitive diversity” increases creativity, productivity, and problem-solving speed in the workplace. With that in mind, what if we focused more on the beauty of our differences and the advantages of diversity? What if our commitment to appreciate each other for who we — including race, religion, gender, and cognitive processing styles — allows us to embrace the eloquent reminder of abolitionist, Frederick Douglass when he encouraged both black and white Americans to work together to move our country forward.
“Remember that we are one, that our cause is one, and that we must help each other, if we would succeed.”
So, we must ask ourselves what it looks like to keep these words as relevant today as they were in the 1800s – not just during Black History Month, but moving forward into March and April and every other month, week, and day of the year. It’s the least we can do. It’s the thing we must do if we are to follow the lead of such courageous heroes, remaining cognizant of different demographics within our communities; aware of those who are under-represented due to race, gender, or socio-economic status; and committed to building workplace environments as diverse as the communities we hope to touch and impact.