There are 29 days in February this year. This “leap year” event happens every four years as we catch up to the actual time it takes to make a revolution around the sun (365 days, 6 hours). February is also Black History Month. This year we have an entire extra day to better understand the black narrative, and that is as important now as ever before.
I’ve been asked by white friends who know that I lead in a multicultural environment, “Why do we have black history month?” This is often a result of simply not understanding the impact of the historical dehumanization of the African narrative throughout history, and can be easily answered in a great dialogue that leaves everyone with increased understanding and unity. If only the question stopped there… but it often doesn’t. The sarcastically toned follow-up question is the more-telling one, “When is white history month?” In this question we have moved from lack of knowledge or understanding—which is easily remedied—to an agenda that perpetuates the racialization running rampant in our country.
When is white history month, you ask? Having been white my entire life, having sat through countless history lessons, and seeing those historical narratives skew our modern cultural perspectives… I can say without a doubt that every day of every month of my entire life has been white history month. With the exception of a few woefully dismissive and uninformative lessons on the Civil Rights Movement and Dr King, the history lessons I learned in both education and religious training celebrated the violent dominance of white Europeans over the indigenous people of the Americas, perpetuated the idea of manifest destiny associating the “will of god” with our conquests throughout the world, and lacked any acknowledgement of the beauty and diversity of African culture with only a faint reference to the fact that slavery even existed in our nations history. We have missed the mark in telling the truth of that history, and by not telling that truth we never address the change required to move our country forward.
I know that we have a black president, which I celebrate because now every black and brown child in our country can grow up dreaming that they might one day have access to that role, just as I did as a child, but we have not arrived. This week I read a fantastic article in Fortune magazine. I’ll place a link to it at the bottom of this post, as I hope everyone will read it. The article is titled, “Leading While Black” and unpacks the limited access that black men have to the highest levels of executive leadership in corporate America. This is not a social agenda publication, and the article is written with a statistical and business diligent perspective, so if you’re skeptical of my writing so far, at least keep reading to hear the insights of author Ellen McGirt who is an accomplished writer in prestigious business publications.
A few of the key statistics that the article unpacks are:
- There have been only 15 black CEOs in the history of the Fortune 500.
- Only one of those CEOs was a woman.
- Black men and women only account for 4.7% of executive team members in the Fortune 100, which hasn’t changed in the last 5 years.
- African Americans only hold 6.7% of the nations 16.2 million management jobs.
- A 2014 UCLA study found that Black boys who are 10 years old were perceived to be “less innocent” than white boys of the same age, and disciplined more harshly in schools, according to convincing statistics.
When I read this data in that well-written article, my heart ached. I mourned that skin color still plays the powerful role it does in our culture. For as advanced as our phone technology is, we are still such a primitive people when it comes to race. We have a computer in the palm of our hands, but can’t see someone of a different race as equal. Miles to go before we sleep.
At the other end of the employment spectrum from the executive level are those living in joblessness and poverty. The Chicago Tribune published a story on January 26th highlighting the overwhelming statistics about unemployment among black males in our own city. 47% of Chicago’s African American males between the ages of 20-24 are out of school and out of work. You read that correctly, nearly half of the young black men in our city. If you want a wake-up call about what our city really needs most, read the article (there’s a link below). As it notes, a study done by the University of Chicago found a “43 percent reduction in violent crime arrests for youths who secured eight-week-long part-time summer jobs with the program, compared with a control group of kids who didn't, and the positive effect lasted 18 months after the program ended.” Economic development opportunity could significantly affect the violence that plagues our city.
So why do I share all of this… my fear is that our systems will continue to perpetuate a lack of opportunity for the black community. That if we don’t culturally overhaul our view of that community, and begin to equalize opportunity for advancement, we will hand the same racialized world to the next generation. My hope is that we will each engage in the 29 days of this month, as a starting point; that we will each increase our knowledge of the black narrative and celebrate it richly throughout February. If you are a white skinned person, what a great opportunity this month is to ask one of the black skinned people in your life what this month means to them and how you can celebrate it as well. Take a trip to the DuSable African American History Museum and expand your learning. Black history far transcends the American holocaust of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, and there is a wealth of information all around us about the beauty of black culture and history. Maybe use that little pocket computer to learn more about the heritage of a people group in these 29 days, and a little less about the Kardashians or whoever else is popular to learn about these days (I’m SO not cool). Even just reading the articles linked below would be a big step for many.
For those of us who are committed to pursuing a multicultural worldview, this journey doesn’t stop on March 1st. We need to extend our learning, our celebration and dialogue well beyond February. Nearly every month of the year is an official celebration of a different culture. While I hope that our engagement transcends calendar-based reminders—until it becomes more natural—it’s a step in the right direction.
The commitment I would ask of you this month is this:
- To REMEMBER the true narrative of the beautiful African people and culture, before the evils of slavery.
- To ACKNOWLEDGE the need to mourn and confess how that heritage was brutally stripped away from generations of blacks.
- To CELEBRATE the heroic accomplishment of the pursuit of equality through emancipation and the civil rights movement that continues today.
- To LEARN, so that we might never make similar mistakes in our prejudicial treatment of a people group, any people group.
May we all remember, acknowledge, celebrate, and learn in this month, and every month that follows. We’ve got an entire extra day… let’s use it for good.
Here are links to the two articles I referenced above: