I’ve been an activist and a vocal proponent of Black rights for as long as I can remember. As a high school student, I was livid when my school glossed over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day—a relatively new national holiday at the time. We celebrated Columbus Day, after all, which honored a man who didn’t actually discover anything, and who is a problematic historical figure for many, many reasons.
As one of the few BIPOC kids at my high school, I felt compelled to do something to honor Dr. King and his legacy...
During lunchtime, I marched to the front of the cafeteria and began reciting a poem in front of my peers: The Negro Mother by Langston Hughes.
Children, I come back today
To tell you a story of the long dark way
That I had to climb, that I had to know
In order that the race might live and grow…
Incredibly, I was able to finish the poem—all 50 lines—without interruption. When I concluded, my peers were a bit stunned, but the one Black adult in the cafeteria burst into applause. His enthusiasm encouraged my peers to clap too, and soon the whole cafeteria was applauding.
After that, I was escorted back to my classroom and, when the classroom teacher began to lecture me, my Black ally/cheerleader cut in and said I was with him. That shut down the conversation! It’s likely the other teachers weren’t happy about my recitation but, in that moment, I didn’t care. I had accomplished what I’d set out to do that day. I had brought awareness to the day and got people talking.
And that’s what reflecting on Black History can do—start conversations.
It isn’t enough to reduce Black History to a single month each year (in the form of Black History Month). We must break the cycle of tokenism. We must collect and share stories of our heroes and trailblazers, uplift the voices of our present-day leaders, and spark dialogue with tomorrow’s generation. Doing so creates pathways of learning, dialogue, and engagement. It deploys Black History as fuel to propel the future.
To me, that’s the point. And, unfortunately, too many organizations miss that point. They send out a few inspirational quotes by Black leaders, or host a lunch-and-learn, and call it good. These are nice gestures, but they ultimately don’t mean much (especially when they’re treated as just another item on the to-do list).
To truly honor the legacy of Black changemakers and leaders, I suggest we do something bigger and more meaningful. Let’s use Black History to create a dialogue and propel change. Let’s use it to mold how we implement diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the workplace.
This could be accomplished through any number of actions, including:
- Hosting monthly or quarterly conversations about Black History and the present-day experiences of BIPOC.
- Inviting activists, historians, and thought leaders to speak about their work.
- Creating learning materials and resources centered around diversity, equity, and inclusion.
- Making sure Black History is a year-round pursuit and not just a single month.
- Offering spaces and platforms to amplify the voices of emerging leaders and changemakers.
- Investing in the next generation of Black leaders.
These strategies can help create meaningful dialogue, inspire action, and motivate young people to lead social change. Honoring the legacy of Black History is both a moral and an economic endeavor. By investing in tomorrow’s leaders today, companies can ensure their long-term success.
So the next time we think of Black History, let’s move beyond tokenism and take steps to ensure that this rich narrative continues to fuel the future.
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