For Black History Month, Target decided to sell something called a “Civil Rights Magnetic Learning Activity” with 26 magnets and two fact sheets featuring illustrations of prominent Black leaders and noteworthy events from the civil rights era.
But as can be the case when corporate America commodifies Black history, it was Target that got schooled.
After she purchased the set for her students, Issa Tete, a high school history teacher, noticed a glaring problem. Booker T. Washington, the founder of Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Alabama, was identified as W.E.B. DuBois, the author and historian who was an NAACP founding member. Carter G. Woodson, the scholar who created Negro History Week, the precursor of Black History Month, was labeled as Washington. DuBois was tagged as Woodson.
“I get that mistakes happen, but this needs to be corrected ASAP,” Tete said in a now-viral TikTok video. In a follow-up post, she said the item needed “to be pulled off the shelves, like, immediately.”
Which is what Target did. Officials also contacted Bendon Publishing, the company that produced the set and calls itself “your go-to children’s activity provider.”
Both Target and Bendon had lots of time to spot and correct the errors before this flawed product was put on shelves. A simple Google check would have cleared up any discrepancies. But it took a Black teacher who wanted to share these often overlooked icons of American history with her students and her own children to call out what these companies couldn’t be bothered to notice.
As necessary as Black History Month remains, it is often fraught with reminders that corporate America’s yearly pandering is less a celebration to “uplift Black culture” — as one currently available T-shirt says — than a cynical money grab on products that will disappear as soon as February ends.
All event-focused store displays, like those for Valentine’s Day or St. Patrick’s Day, have limited shelf lives. But American history is not a fixed holiday that should garner attention for a few weeks before it is relegated to the discount tables, especially at a time when Black history in particular is being attacked by Republican-led legislatures and books are banished from public school classrooms and libraries.
When he started Negro History Week in 1926, Woodson, the son of formerly enslaved people, understood that Black people could not afford to wait for white historians to recognize their indelible contributions to this nation and their claim to its heritage.
“If a race has no history, if it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated,” Woodson wrote in his 1933 book “The Mis-education of the Negro.” In 1970, after a movement by Black college students to learn more about their history and make it part of the curriculum, Negro History Week became Black History Month.
Six years later, President Gerald Ford became this nation’s first chief executive to recognize Black History Month. In a statement, he called it a chance to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Every president since Ronald Reagan has issued a Black History Month proclamation. It took corporate America longer to recognize the designation as a ripe commercial opportunity. And in their rush to cash in, especially after worldwide protests against systemic racism followed the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer in May 2020, some companies have been roasted for their sloppy appropriation of Black idioms or trying to turn Blackness itself into just another brand.
In 2022, American Airlines was criticized when it updated its Twitter profile photo with its logo encircled with a Kente cloth-style banner. (”African American Airlines?” asked one commenter.) That same year, Bath & Body Works was accused of pandering when it dressed up its usual potions and lotions in an approximation of African designs with words like “unity” and “empowered” added to the packaging.
But this year’s corporatization of Black culture and history is happening as diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are vanishing from companies faster than you can say “What racial reckoning?” The dissonance between performative celebrations of Black history and the dissolution of programs to help make corporate America look more like America is impossible to overlook.
When a group has been disrespected for so long, their achievements downplayed or ignored, there’s a misconception that they’ll settle for any crumb of recognition tossed their way. We won’t. But for many companies, that’s how low their bar is in acknowledging Black History Month.
What corporate America willfully fails to recognize is that only a rigorous and sustained commitment to racial diversity and equity, proven as good business practice, is what it will take to truly honor and celebrate Black history — our American history.