January 29, 2022

Who is Black History Month actually for?

Cheers to the (first) freakin’ weekend edition of this newsletter. January is coming to a close and with it, the end of all conversation surrounding Dry January or Veganuary, depending on which version of the month your respective social media influencers are paid to celebrate.

In a few short days, corporations will realize it’s February and start rolling out their Black History Month celebrations in an effort to turn a profit by quite literally commercializing a history that certain government officials don’t want taught in grade schools. In anticipation of this onslaught of questionable allyship, Meteor editor-at-large Rebecca Carroll spoke with author and historian Imani Perry about the origins of Black History Month and its current role in American culture. We’ve also got a quick hit on the latest episode of Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s UNDISTRACTED, featuring extremely fashionable guest Elaine Welteroth.

Also, we’re new here and would love to hear from you, so drop us a line over at [email protected] and let us know what you’re absolutely dying to read. – Shannon Melero


“This Changes Everything”

What Imani Perry taught me about Black History Month


Years ago, when I was working at a mainstream media corporation, I was called into a marketing meeting for my ideas on how to best package Black History Month in ways that would boost ad sales and sponsorship on the site. I suggested, in all seriousness, because I genuinely believed what I was saying: “What if we didn’t package Black History Month at all? What if we took a break from selling this idea that Black History is something we should only think about for a month every February?” Well, you can imagine. The marketing folks were shooketh, and I was promptly dismissed from the meeting.

The thing is, I was coming from a place of profound (and uneducated) cynicism, based on the belief that Black History Month was created by white folks. And I know I’m not alone in thinking this. Thank heavens for historian and author Imani Perry, whose new book, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, was published this week, and who went ahead and set the record straight for me—because honestly, I simply did not know.

RC: Given that I was adopted into a white family, raised in a white town, and then went on to spend the bulk of my career in white media spaces, Black History Month has always seemed exploitative and commercialized to me—but I was so curious to learn from you that Black History Month actually has its origins in Black culture. Can you explain?

IP: Black History Month was an outgrowth of Negro History Week. In the early 20th century, Black history programs and curricula were organized in segregated Southern Schools. They happened in February because that was the month of Abraham Lincoln’s birth and Frederick Douglass’s chosen birthday (he didn’t know his exact birthdate, having been born in slavery). In 1926, historian and organizer Carter G. Woodson formalized these practices and established Negro History Week.

Negro History Week was an extension of a very deliberate effort that began immediately post-emancipation to document Black history, both domestically and internationally, and resist the false claim that people of African descent had contributed nothing meaningful to human history or civilization. Negro History Week, which became Black History Month in the early 1970s, was focused on young people…and became a robust tradition. There were Negro History Week curricula—books on Black U.S., Caribbean, and African histories and historic figures; essays, documents, plays, pageants, and academic exercises along with the ritual singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Often these school-based programs invited the entire community to participate and so these were collective celebrations, as well as opportunities for people to learn.

It wasn’t really until the late 1970s that white Americans even began to have any significant awareness of Black History Month, and much of that came through consumer culture. So, like Kwanzaa, a ritual that was developed primarily within Black communities made its way to the larger public through advertising strategies intended to compel Black buyers rather than substantive political transformation. So we get fast food companies celebrating Black History Month in ways that mean close to nothing or at times are even offensive. But despite that, there continue to be institutions in which Black History Month is rooted in a tradition of Black people writing themselves into history in ways that reject the logic of white supremacy and give a more expansive reach to the story of Black life both in this country and globally.

And so what does Black History Month mean to you, both personally and professionally?

IP: Personally, Black History Month is one of those traditions, like Emancipation Day or Juneteenth or Watch Night, that I cherish because it anchors me in tradition and ritual. Professionally…because I’m very invested in ensuring that my students know the history of Black institutional life, I teach the ritual as an outgrowth of one of the most important periods of intellectual development in African American history.

“Black History Month is rooted in a tradition of Black people writing themselves into history in ways that reject the logic of white supremacy.”

Traditionally, historians describe the Jim Crow era as the “nadir” of American race relations, the phrase used by historian Rayford Logan. And by that, he meant the lowest point, that horrifying period when the promises of Reconstruction had been completely denied. What is remarkable about that time is that Black people got to work despite the devastation. There was exceptional growth in African American civic life in this period. People were building organizations and networks, writing books and developing social theory, building schools, and churches at every turn. And so, even when society shut the door to opportunity and treated Black people with horrible brutality, they kept dreaming, doing, and creating. For me, that is not just a key point for understanding African American history but it is an incredible daily inspiration for my own work.

Do you think it’s ever more necessary in this current cultural climate to uphold BHM, and if so, to what end?

IP: I don’t think of Black History Month as more or less important based upon the political moment. I guess I would say it will be important indefinitely because we live in a white supremacist country and world, and counter-narratives that value freedom and dignity and resilience will always be necessary as long as stratifying people on the basis of identity is the norm.

Surely you’ve had experiences where (almost always white) people will say something that is just all kinds of wrong regarding BHM (I’m sorry to say I have had several)—or there is this unspoken sense of “We’re giving you this whole month, can you just be grateful?” Can you recall such an experience, and how you responded/flipped the script for your own sense of sanity?

IP: Thank goodness I’ve never had a white person say to me that they’ve given Black people Black History Month. It would frankly be something that I’d laugh at, for a long time. Nothing could be further from the truth. Black people created it for Black people, and particularly for Black young people, and have been gracious enough to invite others to participate. They should feel fortunate.

Rebecca Carroll is a writer, cultural critic, and podcast creator/host. She is the author of several books, including her recent memoir Surviving the White Gaze. Rebecca is editor at large for The Meteor.


  • The move to ban “controversial” books from schools and libraries is quickly gaining steam. This week a school board in Tennessee banned the use of the graphic novel Maus, supposedly because it included profanity and nudity. The nudity in question, which is a lot tamer than what kids are watching on Euphoria, is a cartoon rendering of naked mice meant to illustrate the indignities forced upon Jewish people during the Holocaust.
  • Speaking of oversized rodents, Florida governor Ron DeSantis is pushing a so-called “parents’ rights” agenda, which includes fast-tracking a bill that will bar discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in grade schools. Slate reporter Christina Carterucci highlights the intentional vagueness of the bill’s language and points out that it’s part of a larger legislative effort to minimize the existence of LGBTQ+ people, which is being referred to in Republican circles as the “Don’t Say Gay” laws.



Why So Many Women of Color Are Leaving Their Jobs


This week, The New York Times published an article about the so-called Great Resignation, the phenomenon in which workers appear to be resigning from their jobs in droves. It identified “turnover contagion,” the idea that if one person leaves, their coworkers will be inclined to reassess their positions as well, and some of the reasons that make workers want to leave, including low pay and lack of work-life balance. (To quote the title of Sarah Jaffe’s excellent book about labor exploitation, “Work won’t love you back.” Say it louder!)

But the Times piece did not directly address one of the more prevailing cultural reasons people are leaving their jobs, and one that’s probably top of mind for a whole lot of us, especially since the summer of 2020: the fact that a lot of work environments are toxic for people of color, women and other marginalized genders, and LGBTQIA+ folks.

“The mindset has shifted to, I’m not fighting to sit at your table anymore.”

Elaine Welteroth identified this factor in the latest edition of Brittany Packnett Cunningham’s UNDISTRACTED podcast. “In the end, if corporations were not really ready to practice what they preach in their press releases or on social media, Black folks and people of color and folks who really were about that change and that progress decided to seek opportunities elsewhere,” said the award-winning journalist, author, TV host and former editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue. “I think that for so long the mantra has been fighting for your seat at the table, and I think that mindset has shifted to, I’m not fighting to sit at your table anymore.

Of course, not everybody is just up and “resigning.” Packnett Cunningham pointed out the fact that many women, particularly women of color, have been “pushed out of the workforce involuntarily, due to childcare and other duties, as well as “refusing to put up with the total bullshit of hostile, racist work environments.” In December, the Center for Public Integrity reported that 181,000 Black women left the workplace between September and December 2021 alone, partly because daycare centers were disproportionately likely to close in Black and Latinx neighborhoods. But the research also suggests that Black women are “refusing to return to certain low-paying jobs, which put them and their families at risk of contracting COVID-19, while not offering any paid sick days or health insurance.” (Time to unionize!)

Bottom line: As Welteroth says, public-facing DEI efforts are simply not enough when women of color and other marginalized folks are being regarded as disposable behind the scenes—even in environments where one would expect better treatment, such as women’s publications and nonprofits. What many employees are responding to is the fact that no matter how many “diverse candidates” a company employs and trots out for clout, the likelihood that white management is treating those workers with the respect they deserve—let alone offering them opportunities for advancement—is criminally slim. No wonder so many workers are simply saying, “I’m out.”

Anyway, it’s a great interview. And she also talks about André Leon Talley, may he rest in fabulousness. Listen to this week’s edition of UNDISTRACTED here.



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