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How — and how not — to celebrate Black History Month

Let’s have less virtue signaling, hypocrisy, and misidentifying of Black people this year, OK?

Grove Elementary School teacher Cameo Williams reads a book about Harriet Tubman to her third graders in Normal, Ill.DAVID PROEBER/Associated Press

Black history is American history. Yet I always find Black History Month in February one of the most vexing times of the year.

Of course I appreciate the noble aim of Black History Month — to highlight and celebrate the contributions Black people have always made to this nation. Carter G. Woodson, an author and historian, launched Negro History Week in February 1926, choosing that month also to honor the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. On its 50th anniversary, that observance was officially expanded into Black History Month.

Yet because this is America, those 28 (or 29) days starting Feb. 1 become a minefield of performative overtures and awkward acknowledgments. Too many seem to regard Black History as little more than a self-serving opportunity. People, corporations, and institutions that otherwise ignore Black people’s culture and lives suddenly dust off their best virtue signaling routines and feign appreciation.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s a bit of guidance on how — and how not — to celebrate Black History Month.


Presidents, keep it simple: Every president since Gerald Ford in 1976 has issued a Black History Month proclamation. That, unfortunately, includes Donald Trump in 2017. Given Trump’s racist history, nothing good could come from him talking about Black people. And nothing did. “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice,” Trump said, as if he’d only learned about Douglass five minutes before mentioning his name. Good to know, though, that Douglass has stayed busy more than 120 years after his death.

Check your hypocrisy: Two years ago, the FBI tweeted, “Today, the FBI honors the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” on MLK Day and mentioned this quote from the civil rights icon: “The time is always right to do what is right.” For years, the FBI thought it was right to spy on King and his inner circle as the agency tried to discredit him and the civil rights movement. Forget the calendar. Don’t pretend to revere Black people you’ve long reviled just for the optics and good press.


And speaking of hypocrites: After the Jan. 6 insurrection, numerous corporations paused donations to Republicans who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election. The pause was short-lived. Most have since resumed giving money to legislators who still support election subversion and voter suppression bills and laws. Anti-democracy efforts are anathema to racial justice. These companies, as well as any Republicans thwarting voting rights legislation, need to sit this one out forever.

Not all Black people look alike: At President Obama’s second inauguration, George Stephanopoulos mistook Celtics legend Bill Russell for actor Morgan Freeman. When Representative John Lewis of Georgia died in 2020, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida tweeted a photo of himself . . . with the late Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland. A TV reporter interviewing Samuel L. Jackson confused the actor with fellow Black person and thespian Laurence Fishburne. This mess gets worse every February. If you absolutely can’t resist posting something about a Black person, regardless of the month, take 30 seconds to know who they are, what you’re talking about, what they look like.


Black history is not limited to four people: Talking only about King, Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Rosa Parks isn’t allyship. It’s ignorance. Learn about history’s hidden figures, especially Black women. Dr. Patricia Bath was an ophthalmologist who invented the Laserphaco Probe for cataract treatment; in 1986, she became the first Black woman doctor to receive a medical patent. Annie Lee Cooper, a voting rights activist, punched out a white sheriff who struck her as she tried to register to vote in Selma in 1965. Pauli Murray, a feminist and civil rights icon, deeply influenced King as well as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late Supreme Court justice. In 1971, Murray even wrote a letter to President Nixon asking to be considered as a replacement for retiring justice Hugo Black. More than 50 years later, this country is as close as it’s ever been to finally nominating a Black woman for a seat on the high court.

Black people stand not apart from but in the center of American history. Every American who honors Black achievement and accomplishment honors their nation. Dig deeper. Read more. Listen and learn from those who know. Appreciate the sacrifices, innovation, and unrequited love that Black people have given this nation. This year in particular, fight for every banned book, gutted curriculum, and morsel of history now being erased. The same racist conditions that spawned Woodson’s original observance make Black History Month more relevant and necessary than ever.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.