5 Non-Performative Ways to Celebrate Black History Month

5 Non-Performative Ways to Celebrate Black History Month

Every February brings four things: Valentine’s Day, President’s Day, the Super Bowl, and Black History Month. The latter has become synonymous with Dr. King, angry white people dumping ketchup on Black peaceful protestors sitting on a stool at Woolworths, and Rosa Parks. These events captured the world’s attention and led to a change in the way America treated its Black people. On paper, schools were desegregated, voting rights in the south became available to all citizens, and interracial couples could openly love and get married.

As a result, the Civil Rights Movement dominates the mainstream’s idea of what Black history means. This is unfortunate, as it limits the scope of contributions made by Black scientists, inventors, artists and educators. It also lends itself to performative celebrations revolving around the most iconic Black figures and/or events of the 20th century, without requiring a deep dive into what Black history means and its connection to all Americans.

There is so much joy, music, food, art, and history created by Black people that is missed in obligatory once-per-year corporate DEI in-service meetings, rote teaching about segregation, and the perpetual misinformation that wrongs committed against Black people have been righted. Rather than continue with activities that check boxes, make time to explore the seminal role of Black people in America.

Experiential in nature and sensorial in practice, try these five non-performative ways to celebrate Black History Month.

Visit a museum.

Most major cities have a Black History Museum or cultural center filled with permanent collections of Black fine art, sculptures, quilts and photographs and so much more. Children’s museums tend to be interactive and places like the Henry Ford Museum of Innovation in Michigan have actual artifacts like the bus where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. In addition to warehousing famous artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat, museums and even department stores hold work by lesser known and local artists from the 19th , 20th and 21st centuries. In Inglewood, California, home of the Sofi Stadium, over 50 pieces from The Kinsey African American Art and History Collection are on display. Museums are also a great way to view art created by Black female artists, who are often overlooked in the mainstream.

Take a Black tour of your city.

As America struggles to acknowledge its revisionist American history, a tour run by a Black tour company will surprise even those who think they know their city. The tour guide will have a perspective and knowledge about Black life the mainstream tours do not have. In Charleston, South Carolina, for example, Black walking tours add context to the city known for location of the first shot fired during the Civil War. There is a rich culture of Gullah, who weave masterfully weave baskets, and cook red rice, a heritage brought over from West Africa and eaten throughout the coastal regions of the Carolinas and Georgia. Without question, rice cultivation shaped social, economic and political relationships between enslaved Blacks and whites for hundreds of years.

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Go to the library or the bookstore.

Window books are stories that give readers a look into someone else’s experience. By exposing young children to beautiful illustrations of Black people of all hues, sizes, hair textures and gender identities, their literary palate will be inclusive and diverse. They will grow up to appreciate a great story, regardless of the race of the author or characters. Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, window books are inexpensive and meaningful gateways to Black History month. Be willing to expand beyond your favorite genre or writers. While James Baldwin and Toni Morrison are household names, talented Black writers can be found in all literary categories: sci-fi, romance, speculative fiction, health, science, women’s fiction, and parenting. Ask the research librarian for direction, or get recommendations from Black publications like Essence magazine, which regularly features best Black book lists.

Support Black businesses.

Be prepared to venture outside your neighborhood to patronize a Black independent book store, florist, notary or juicier. Having lunch or dinner at a soul food restaurant is a taste of Black History and about as American as one can get. Subscriptions for Black-owned coffee vendors like Crenshaw Coffee Company abound, as do Black-owned pizza parlors like Slim + Husky’s Pizza Beeria, who ship frozen pizza all over the country. For wine aficionados, visit Brown Napa Valley, the first and only Black-owned winery in tony Napa Valley. There are other Black-owned shoe and apparel companies, bakeries, and Uncle Nearest whiskey, a Black and female-owned whiskey company. Black businesses offer diverse products and services, and often a story of how they got started.

Arrange play dates.

Intimate, unhurried play between children is always a win. Be open to going to the home of a Black friend, who may live in a Black or gentrifying neighborhood. This gesture of goodwill demonstrates an intentional desire to get to know that family. Not only will friendships deepen, but their home will reveal their sentiments, hopes and dreams — information that cannot be learned from afar. From the art on the walls, to bookshelves lined with titles by Black authors, Black dolls and action figures, up close and personal bonding is an act of celebration of Black culture.

Stream Black programs.

Almost all of the streaming channels: Netflix, Hulu, Apple + TV, Peacock, STARZ, BET, and others have dedicated links to movies and televisions shows with Black themes. As a family, commit to watching a program with an all-Black cast or Black lead. There is no shortage of romance movies, sitcoms, cop shows, documentaries, horror movies, docu-series, concerts, and comedies available for all ages. By watching a variety of Black shows, viewers learn a few things: (1) not all Black people are the same; (2) there are universal joys and frustrations all parents share, (3) and dating in the 21st century is as complicated as ever. Stereotypes of gang-related Black boys and sassy Black girls begin to carry less weight and in-person encounters are less fraught with uncertainty. If a program sparks, tell a friend. The more eyes on a program, the more momentum is built for programming beyond February. Tuning in to Black programming has social and economic ramifications beyond Black History month. If ratings increase, production companies will seek Black talent, scripts written by Black screenwriters, and opportunities in front of and behind the camera will expand.

With the proliferation of Black History parades, film festivals, book signings and art exhibitions happening throughout the country, it is easy to get immersed in Black culture. Not only will curiosity be stoked and alliances made, but learning about Black history offers a window into largely overlooked achievements of Black Americans. This does not have to be limited to February.

Ultimately, the goal is to recognize the small and profound ways Black people have contributed to society, for America is not America without its Black people. This is the legacy of the founder of Black History month, Black historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson. Dr. Woodson chose February as Negro History Week in 1926, in honor of President Abraham Lincoln and former enslaved abolitionist Frederick Douglass, because he fervently believed that Black people should be proud of their heritage. In truth, all Americans should be eager to understand and appreciate an historically marginalized group through nonperformative action and intention.

Nefertiti Austin is author of ‘Motherhood So White: A Memoir of Race, Gender and Parenting in America’. She lives with her two children in Los Angeles.

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