What We Celebrate (and Need to Talk About) When We Celebrate Black History Month
We asked dozens of participants what Black History Month meant to them, and what we can do better to commemorate the contributions of Black Americans.
Research by Belinda Nam, Dendra Abdinoor, Hannah Muscara, and Shadae Pickett; Visuals by Emi Tolibas
“I'm most proud of the fact that my late father, who passed away at the age of 37, when I was just 16, overcame alcoholism and became a leader in our community on issues of social justice. I take inspiration for my journey from him.” - Ed C.
“I am most proud of the fact that my family has chosen to give back to the Black community. My grandad worked in a low-income, Black neighborhood his entire career because Black people needed a dentist they could trust." - Cierra P.
"I'm most proud of my grandmother. She was a proud Black woman who worked in the civil service sector of the military. She was a pillar in the community, a civil rights leader in our town; she led women’s groups and was respected by all from many different walks of life." - Andre D.
While Black History Month (BHM) is reflected upon publicly across the country—by individuals, institutions, and brands—the nature of that celebration is intensely personal. So we wanted to see, and showcase, what the month meant to Black Americans personally.
And when we asked scouts (dscout participants): “How should we celebrate Black History Month?” an overwhelmingly recurrent answer was: “Educate yourself and others.”
In that spirit, here’s a look at participant responses to a series of deep-diving questions about Black history, Black identity, and Black culture. Dozens of Black scouts gave us some poignant advice for how all Americans (and American businesses) can celebrate the contributions of Black Americans—in February, and far beyond it.
Participants reiterated that BHM is critical to making space for Black Americans in a curriculum that often overlooks their contributions. However, they also stressed that it’s an equally valuable opportunity to celebrate the achievements, and expose the struggles, of Black Americans today. Monumental Black Americans have a legacy that continues to be resonant in the present—and present day Black Americans are owed more recognition.
"John Lewis is a living testament to history....He marched with Martin Luther King Junior. He fought for civil rights back in the 1960s. He walked across that Edmund Pettus Bridge. He was the youngest person to give the speech on the March on Washington and he's still alive and fighting for civil rights today...I feel like everybody should celebrate him; you should give people their flowers before they're gone." - Cierra P.
"I'm inspired by Paula Johnson who was the first Black woman to serve as the president of Wellesley College..I think why her story most resonates with me is because it highlights the fact that Black history isn't over...It’s still in the presentbecause she only became the first Black woman to serve in this role in the 2000s. The struggle for Black achievement is not over. And we could still be inspired by people who are around us everyday." - Kayla H.*
I resonate the most during Black History Month with Frederick Douglass. I was a super shy kid I barely spoke up in class. I remember reading all the stories about how confident and how intelligent he was and it transformed me. If he could do it in a time where [Black Americans were] slaves, how come I can't speak up and be proud and confident of my opinions and my ideals? He's done the same thing for other Black kids around the world. -Nnamdi O.
When asked about what themes were emblematic of Black history—participants largely discussed February as a time to showcase the strength and resilience of the Black community—and the pride that results from the capacity to overcome.
"To be Black is to be resilient. It means that with whatever adversity I’m faced with, I will rise from it with creativity and intelligence. I am proud of my blackness, despite the challenges that come along with it." - Aaliyah M.
"Being Black means coming from behind but still keeping up. Being Black means being different, unique, and strong" - Dubem A.
"Being Black is a badge of honor in the Black community. It’s also something that people fear. It’s the ability to code switch at the ring of a phone. It is struggle. It is adversity. It’s constantly proving yourself. It is hard work. It’s natural hair. It’s a unique community of individuals that set trends and break expectations at every turn." - Tammy M.*
When asked about their connection to other Black Americans, many respondents felt they shared a common experience—shaped through their racial identity—that led to inherent ties.
"I feel connected because I understand that my expression of blackness adds to the many other expressions of blackness. I identify with some and contrast others in Black people within the United States. The similarities and differences help construct my own identity as a Black person." - Darien D.
I feel that the essence of blackness is one that radiates in every Black person who is awake and aware in today’s age. I feel that even though it can sometimes be connected to pain, joy, pride, celebration, anguish, desperation, or anger, it still connects us. Because we are a community that I believe truly comes together, it ricochets through us all, and I feel that strongly." - Adinawa A.
However, some stressed that they felt disconnected—in part due to isolation and marginalization.
"There are organizations available to help Blacks, but a very limited amount. When thinking of a black community, it’s easy for someone to see your struggle as “a weaker struggle” compared to what they went to. So not only could we experience that from another race, but very well within our own race." - Devon M.*
How Black Americans take pride in Black History month:
While many of our scout’s responses illustrated that they celebrated the month in multiple ways, education frequently appeared to be a top priority—both the education of oneself, and the broader wish to educate others.
In order of frequency, and grouped by theme, here's how scouts responded to: "How do you celebrate Black History Month?"
Support / Attend BHM events
Share / Post on social media
I don’t celebrate
Watch movies / TV about Black history
Support Black businesses
1. Educating themselves:
"I celebrate Black history all year round. I read about the collective struggles my people have overcome, egregious targeted attacks we've suffered through, the heroes who brought us through, and contemporaries who are advancing us even further so I can maintain hope for our future." - Erik B.
2. Educating others:
"I try to make sure that I focus on introducing my kids to lesser known Black people that have made an impact on our society. I also try to make sure that I find living examples of Black excellence to show my children. This year, we are reading excerpts from Michelle Obama’s biography and I am talking to them about her life and legacy." - Tammy M.*
3. Support/Attending BHM Events:
"We attend events in the area that mark the accomplishments of our ancestors. We also attend events that show how people we know are still making a difference. For instance, we just attended the Cincinnati Urban League’s lunch honoring four African American Men and Women who are working to help inner city youth and elderly." - Gregory H.
4. Share / post on social media
"This year, I am researching Black historical figures of my university. I am spreading information curated by the university's library via social media. I have also attended two Black History community events at a local library." - Darien D.
5. Supporting Black businesses
"Buy from Black businesses. I try to make it so that Black people don't fail when they try to own a business in the first two years. If I can help Black people rise to their potential business-wise it can be an inspiration and an example to the next person who wants to become a business owner and maybe we'll start to build Black communities that are owned by Black people and patronized by Black people.” - Cam R.
A majority of respondents agreed that Non-Black Americans should also take the time to recognize Black History Month. Generally, they stressed the importance of recognizing the history of black oppression, engaging with the art and ideas of influential black figures, and educating members of their own community.
"I think that all people should use this time to learn about history makers and influencers in the black community that are shaping the way that other people do LIFE. If there was a genuine appreciation for what we bring to the world then others might have a greater sense of what we have had to overcome.” - Tammy M.*
"[Non-black people should] be open to learning about the things that transpired throughout Black History, so that they can have a better understanding of our culture and find out that there is more that binds us together than there is that separates us." - Andre D.
"Take the opportunity to widen out and speak with Blacks. Educate themselves on Black contributions. Be open to having honest-hearted communications about the black experience in this country." - Kendra M.*
As importantly, many scouts also stressed that the Non-Black celebration of the month shouldn’t shift the focus of BHM away from the Black community.
"I don’t know that [Non-Black] Americans should celebrate. I don’t celebrate Yom Kippur nor Mexican Independence Day so why should they celebrate Black history and excellency? " - Edward W.*
"I’m not sure celebrate is the right word. It’s important in America to be cognizant and aware of the social climate that is ever changing. I wouldn’t expect a group of white people to throw a Black History Month party, but I believe it is incredibly important for non-black people to recognize the struggle and oppression an entire race endured for so long." - Grace C.*
Participants also stressed that businesses had a responsibility to recognize BHM—while making absolutely certain not to exploit that celebration for financial gain. Brands should leverage their unique platforms to acknowledge black pioneers, and to contribute actively to social causes that impact the Black community.
“Businesses should make a point to honor any black people who have pioneered in their industry...They should also take time to reflect on their business. Is it diverse? Is it inclusive? Is it welcome to all races and ethnicities?” - Cierra P.
"Donate manpower and funds to inner city youth. Most companies have thrived off of Black dollars. And it's only fair that they show some appreciation for it." - Juan W.
"Part of me thinks that companies should acknowledge Black history month but at the same time not do anything that is exploiting Black history month for money." - Desmond P.
"They can use their platform to educate people as well. They have an audience and it makes sense to use it to positively influence and spread knowledge." - Aaliyah M.
Our recollection of Black history still lacks nuance:
Participants stressed that Black history, as it's taught in February and year-round, tends to paint a narrow picture of black culture and black contributions. Black History Month should be an opportunity to portray a more comprehensive view of the life of both past, and present, Black Americans.
"I think that it should be taught in classrooms honestly. If you ask the average person, they’d probably only be able to name a few black individuals throughout history that were impactful. Not because there were only a few, but because we are only taught about a few." - Aaliyah M.
"Black history is more than just slavery and Martin Luther King Jr. Overall, we need a non-white-washed version of Black History taught in schools. Admittedly, that is no easy task." - Darien D.
“I would like to see more black people in the health field, more black college students, more black astronauts, less black prisoners, more black LGBTQ+ icons, more love and respect for black women, more black billionaires, more black people in power, and more understanding when we want our voices heard. I would also love to see more positive representation in film and TV." - Theodore K.*
From our participants | A few figures you should know:
Mary Eliza Mahoney: “She was the first documented black nurse. Without learning about her, I don't think I would've still been interested in a career in nursing, [after so many obstacles]. She was able to get her license in the 1880s; so I should be able to get mine [today].” - Nora O.
Surya Bonaly: “She was the first black female figure skater really to call out kind of the discrimination and racism that is in this sport. She brought attention to issues that minorities face in sports that are mostly white.” - Emma D
Alvin Ailey: “Alvin Ailey is really important to me because he was someone that he brought dance and the beauty of black bodies to the fight for justice, He took his drive for a passion for music and dance and used that as his voice to spread his word." - Dubem A.
Fannie Lou Hamer: “She was an incredible voting rights activist and women's rights activist in the 60s. She attempted to vote, but to do that African Americans had to take a poll test. They told her she failed and made her pay a poll tax. She was fired from her job because at that time they would put your name in the newspaper if you registered to vote.” - Sonya C.
Marsha P. Johnson. “She was a trans woman and she is credited with starting the Stonewall riots which is known to be the birthplace of the LGBTQ rights movement...She literally and physically put herself on the front lines to make sure that everybody could live in their own truth and live in their own freedom...and society still benefiting off of her actions today.” - Marieh S.
Bessie Coleman. Bessie Colemon (the first African-American female pilot) doesn't get enough credit for what she did. She had to navigate racism, sexism, and the sheer difficulty of operating an early 20th century aircraft. - Darien D.
Participants raised issues of sex (e.g., being a Black female or woman), religion, and gender-identity as informing, shaping, and crystalizing their relationship to BHM and its celebration or recognition.
Participants also stressed caution with viewing—or celebrating—the Black community and its history monolithically, noting that the individuals comprising the Black diaspora are much more diverse than a single term could ever hope to encapsulate.
In exploring perceptions of and feelings about blackness, many participants drew in other important aspects of their personality and selves, implicitly promoting the importance of their heritage as more than "just Black." When asked, participants ranked many other qualities and aspects of their selves as important in informing their relationship to Black History Month (BHM).
"Being Muslim on top of being black is very hard, I always feel like at any moment someone could just say or do something so evil because people do it all the time to Muslim women. So being black and Muslim is very hard and sometimes frustrating, but I wouldn’t change my race or religion for anything" - Robyn A.*
"Other aspects of my identity, such as being gay, impact my blackness because I can't be cool with homophobes even if we're both Black. It affects how close I can get to people." - Desmond P.
"Being pro-black only goes so far in the black community. Intersection on race and gender or race and sexual orientation becomes touchy. Being a black woman? That makes you a double minority. If I am discriminated against by a white man it may be because I’m black or because I’m a woman, or it could be both. Black women are still discriminated against by misogynist black men. I can sympathize with black people who are gay, trans, or disabled because I understand what it feels like to be discriminated against twice." - Cierra P.
"I feel that in addition to me being black, being a woman, being someone who migrated to the United States, and being a low-income person was something that really played on my black experience here in the United States. I didn’t feel like I had the representation that I needed to be able to see that [my goals] could really be made possible.” - Adinawa A.
Some participants felt, on the other hand, that while other elements of their identity impacted their experiences—their racial identity made the most significant impact:
"I have found that nothing impacts my identity more than race. No one cares about how much money I make, how much education I have, or my sexual orientation once they see me. My race can't be hidden, for better or worse, and that I find to overrule every other aspect of my identity." - Ed C.
Scouts were asked to complete the following sentence:
When thinking about the future for Black Americans, I feel ______.
40 participants responded positively (keywords like hopeful, optimistic) and 9 responded negatively (keywords like; uneasy, afraid, disheartened).
Amongst the majority of respondents who felt hopeful about the future—the progress, talent, and strength of the black community was highlighted:
“There are more black students in school than there were ever before. I have friends that are getting degrees to become black lawyers, doctors, engineers, and scientists. Black people are cultivating wealth and receiving credit for their ideas and creations. Black people are dominating sports, music, film, tv and entertainment. We have had a black president and I know we will have another." - Cierra P.
“There is so much raw talent that I see within African American perspectives and actions. When I speak with a lot of my black friends, we have so many ideas within the social impact sector that would allow economic prosperity and sustainability that could promote black culture. The purchasing power is already there. The future is now centered in using that power to invest in ourselves." - Franck T.
"There is still much to be done to educate ourselves and others...strides that need to be made. And adversities that need to be overcome. But one thing still remains...the tenacity of the black spirit. And that makes me hopeful “ - Kendra M.
However, some acknowledged the current anxiety prompted by the political climate and the taxing barriers still to be overcome.
"Given the current climate...it has been made clear that this country still looks at us like 1/3 of a human being, I am completely disheartened about the future of myself and my community in the United States of America. Prior to Trump, people kept their prejudices a bit more politically correct and baked into institutions like education and corporate America. It is now out of the closet and in full effect." - Kandace S.*
“I cannot even recall the amount of times I have personally experienced people who felt as though my presence was threatening. I am so over trying to overcompensate and portray myself in a way that makes others feel comfortable. I want Black Americans to live unapologetically the way they are without worrying about how they are perceived by others." - Nora O.*
Here at dscout, we believe Black History Month is about amplifying all Black voices—past, present, and future. So, we celebrated by doing what we do best: running a mission!
Through this report, we sought to center the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of some of our Black scouts. Our mission was designed to gather perspectives on Black History Month specifically, and the Black experience more broadly. All data was collected from 49 scouts via dscout's platform in February 2020.
In selecting our scouts, we aimed to be as demographically representative as possible across location (18 states), gender-identity (22 women, 26 men, 1 non-binary), age (18-66), education level, and income.
Through this study, dscout’s team created questions to fit the general framework of exploring the experiences our Black scouts have had. Our report objective was to highlight individual experiences. With this objective in mind, we oriented our analysis around showcasing individual voices and surfacing overarching themes.
If you'd like more information about our sample, to see the study data directly, or to start your own qual research project with dscout—reach out to [email protected]