Black History Month: an invitation to learn and celebrate

It’s February, 2020. One of our final social events before the pandemic hit — a Black History Month activity at our local library. My wife, a frequent patron of our library’s activities, had brought home a pamphlet outlining all the different Black History Month activities, and circled one in particular: an African drum circle. 

We were bundling our 14-month-old toddler in warm clothes, carrying him to the couch. Carrying, because his gross motor skills were “behind”. While most of his peers walked, he crawled. In fact, earlier in the day my wife had taken him to some physical therapy, where they used bright and loud toys, placed higher up, to encourage him to transition from “standing” to “walking”. We’d seen small, shaky successes, but mostly he preferred to sit, crawl, stand, and repeat as he chased the toys. 

A quick five-minute drive and we’re in the library, unbundling our child. Around him is a crowd that looks, almost exclusively, different from our family: contrasting our pale complexion are varieties of skin tones. We set our son down, and sat beside him. He watched his peers running around the room, excited yells and cheers as children weaved through sitting and standing adults.

A librarian introduced our guest speaker: a Black woman, wearing what I assumed was representative of “traditional” African attire — but my ignorance of the culture behind her flowing dress made me self-conscious. She began the event with a short explanation of the way African culture has permeated American communities, noting the specific power of music. Celebrating Black History Month, she noted, meant celebrating cultural roots back to Africa. 

Tonight, we would celebrate with African song and instruments. She welcomed the children up to line a row of drums. A minute to explain the beat, and she began signaling the children to drum. The children, laughing with glee, began pounding the drums. The beat was clumsy, yet sustained. 

My son loves music, and began humming and rocking back and forth. My wife lifted him to his feet, holding his hands so he could sway.

But this moment, this celebration, took hold of him in a way all of our own efforts, and even physical therapy, could not. 

My son took a step. 

Then another. 

And another. 

The rest of the room seemed oblivious, but there we were, experiencing his first confident steps. As the heavy rhythm resounded through the room, my son would stomp from his mother to me, and then from me to his mother. His eyes were bright, his smile wide. 

In one moment, I saw the teacher look at my son. Her deep smile seemed to understand the significance of this moment.

This story is meant to illustrate a core idea: celebrating Black History Month is for all of us. It’s about a particular group of people, but I’ve yet to meet anyone hosting a Black History Month event that said “oh, you aren’t Black — this isn’t for you.” The teacher didn’t send my family away because the drum circle is African heritage, but instead welcomed us and encouraged our participation.

But, I haven’t always engaged with Black History Month. I grew up in a very homogenous community, and a lack of diversity led to a predictable misunderstanding of Black History Month. 

Let’s talk about two big stumbling blocks on my journey to joining the celebrations of Black History Month:

1. “Why isn’t there a white history month?” 

Well, there kind of is. In my Midwestern city, we have the Irish festival in August, and the Italian and German festivals in October. In these festivals we celebrate foods, traditions, and the history of Americans with heritage from these countries. 

Because of the slave trade, it’s hard for Black Americans to trace their heritage. I can remember my parents telling me that my heritage was British, Irish, German, and Scandanavian. Many of my Black friends tell me that their conversations were different — their heritage is “Black”. 

On top of that, Black history and heritage have been suppressed. Historically, influential Black Americans have been left out of our classrooms, our museums, our media, and our web searches. Sometimes, inventions by Black technologists have been attributed to White inventors.

An exercise: name five scientists or inventors that significantly progressed science and technology. 

Now, try to name five Black scientists or inventors that significantly progressed science and technology.

You may find the latter far more difficult; I do. It’s not because there is a lack of Black scientists or inventors — but, rather, society hasn’t celebrated or championed them. 

This doesn’t just impact our understanding of history — it continues to perpetuate a group of people being continually left out of conversations. 

2. “Black History Month is important, but it isn’t my thing.” 

This was my excuse to sit on the sidelines. I’d acknowledge Black History Month was happening, but withhold my attention — let alone actually celebrate it.

Essentially, I’d landed myself into a calendar-driven version of segregated history. For people excited about Black History Month, it was a great thing. For me, I’d continue going to the festivals that represented me. 

It was the “neutral” stance, but neutrality maintains a status quo — and when the status quo perpetuates systemic racism and oppression, neutrality is complicit. Refraining from engaging in Black History Month means I’m perpetuating my own ignorance, I’m limiting my own worldview, and I’m missing out on valuable cultural experiences. 

Also, “Black History” casts quite a broad boundary — so no matter what you’re interested in, you can find something. Because our education often ignores Black contributions outside of conversations around slavery civil rights movements, we may see this as a narrow topic. In reality, Black History Month celebrates science, technology, sports, fine art, dance, music, pop culture, literature and poetry, science fiction, film — I’ve yet to find a topic that isn’t covered by Black History Month.

Black History Month events have expanded my worldview. It’s changed how I view America —  both in appreciation of the critical contributions of Black Americans, but also in the oppressive status quo. It’s helped me see what needs to change. I’ve grown from the stories, as an equity advocate, but also as a human. 

So, with those two stumbling blocks out of the way — what are some ways we can engage in Black History Month?

1. Learn. In my opinion, this is the most critical. It’s hard to advocate from a place of ignorance. Note that this doesn’t mean you have to specifically learn about race and racism (although that’s a really good idea, too). As I mentioned above, Black History Month encompasses likely any other topic. 

2. Make a Tableau Public viz celebrating Black History. Find some interesting data, and viz it. If you’re worried about “saying the wrong thing”, reach out to some people to get their feedback. You’re likely to get helpful feedback from the generosity of our Black Tableau ambassadors, Zen Masters, or members of the Community Equity Task Force. Try not to “tokenize” someone, or assume that a single person can speak on behalf of all Black people. Ultimately, publish with a humility that welcomes learning from perspectives different from your own.

3. Check the diversity of your personal network. For years, my network was incredibly homogenous. My own network is far too homogenous, and that limits my growth and worldview. I’ve been intentionally trying to form deeper relationships with people that are different than me, in all sorts of ways. 

4. Add Black voices and perspectives to your social media feed(s). A couple years ago, I started seeking out Black voices to add to my Twitter feed. Then, I would follow people they retweeted or followed. At first, I had to search — but eventually, I hit a point where my feed and recommendations were more heterogeneous. I now find my feed is much more enlightening. I get new perspectives all the time, because I’m seeing more walks of life. In addition, my understanding of race and race issues continues to evolve — but I also learn new perspectives about data and technology and storytelling and science and even bird watching as a result of diversifying my Twitter feed. 

If you’re looking for a place to start, check out the Black leaders in our own community: 

And bonus, if you’re looking for some super fun voices beyond Data Viz of the community: Jason Ward, Birder extraordinaire, and Arrianna Marie Planey, medical geographer. 

Once you’ve followed these people, you’ll start to see more diversity from their activity on your timelines — and engage with that. Follow the people that they’re retweeting and replying to, and you’ll start to see the algorithms begin offering you more and more diverse perspectives.

5. Share and elevate the Black voices. A couple of times I’ve mentioned that Black voices are often left out of the conversation. You can help that. On social media, engage with the Black people in your feed. Share their tweets and their work. Push the heart button, send a reply. Offer feedback when asked. Extend a hand, and make sure they feel as welcome in the community as others.

6. Speak up. There’s still a lot of racism, both explicit and implicit, individualized and systemic. February (or any time) is a great calendar marker to set aside time and look at how you’re helping, and how you’re perpetuating. As you learn (refer to step 1 above), you’ll start to see how some things may disproportionately benefit some people over others. Maybe you notice you don’t work with very many Black individuals — how can you help? You don’t need to storm the C-suite, but you could reach out to your recruiters to see if you could connect them to some of the new people you met as a result of steps 3 and 4 above. Or, maybe you can connect your company’s talent team to an organization like Millenials and Data. Repeated, small behaviors can add up to big impact. 

I sincerely hope this post doesn’t come across as “Black History Month for White people”. Rather, I hope it’s an open door. Over years I’ve made a slow journey into learning and appreciating Black history, and now Black History Month is something I look forward to. My goal is that this post accelerates your journey.

Consider this post a phone call, from a friend: “So my library is hosting an African drum circle. We went last year, it was awesome. I’ve been looking forward to it all year — wanna go?”

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