Monday, February 10, 2014

Black History Month: Its Significance and Its Message of Diversity

The month of February is Black History Month, also known as the National African American History Month, and it pays tribute to the many generations of African Americans who fought for freedom and equality in America, and commemorates their accomplishments, as well as their contributions to American history. Its observance too highlights the importance of diversity in today's America.

This celebration, in fact, had its origins in 1915 when historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, now known as the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (“ASALH”). Through this organization Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson selected the week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the history of African Americans.

Then in 1975, through his Message on the Observance of Black History Week, President Ford urged all Americans to "recognize the important contribution made to our nation's life and culture by black citizens."

In 1976, this commemoration of black history in the United States was expanded by ASALH to Black History Month, and President Ford issued the first Message on the Observance of Black History Month that year. 

Since then, February has been officially designated by every American president as the month for the observation of Black History Month.

Notably in 1986, Public Law 99-244 (PDF, 142KB) was passed by Congress to provide for the designation of the month of February, 1986 as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month. This law noted that February 1, 1986 would “mark the beginning of the sixtieth annual public and private salute to Black History.” 

President Reagan, mandated by this law, issued Presidential Proclamation 5443, which among others states the primary purpose of the observance of Black History Month, which is to " make all Americans aware of this struggle for freedom and equal opportunity.” Source for the history of Black History Month

Equal opportunity, indeed, until today remains an important struggle for African Americans who are very much woven into the national fabric of a diverse America, and their fight for being full citizens of this great land cannot be diminished, for African Americans have added immensely to the rich diversity of American society, in general, and specifically, to workplace diversity.

There is no better time then to appreciate this, and taking cue from an article by Gary Smith on how to celebrate Black History Month more meaningfully, let us look at these ways that can add proper context to its observance:
  • Start with an end goal in mind: - Diversity employers can start with knowing exactly what they want to achieve: a greater understanding of the contributions of African Americans, for one or seek to engender an understanding of African-American cultural norms to develop products and services that connect better with customers.
  • Use it to further dialogue: Forging a bond that fosters more authentic conversations is an important and worthwhile goal of Black History Month.
  • Connect celebrations to the broader mission: This requires communicating that organizations benefit from diversity through the talents of a diverse workforce and potentially from the impact diverse markets may have on the business. Showing the linkage between diversity and revenue generation as part of a cultural celebration creates an effective demonstration of why diversity matters.
  • Create a call for action: The information presented in (any) celebration needs to find its way back into the work of the organization. A key question that needs to be answered is: How will what you learned here influence what you do? 
  • Read more about these here   
It may only be a month, but the real significance of Black History Month is to live out the values of diversity, inclusion and equality as daily praxis in every aspect of American life.

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