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Lessons in (and from) Black History

February 17, 2020
By Jon Bennett Gray

Like many kids, my mom put me through what felt like countless hours of flash card drills. Math, grammar, spelling, you name it.

But for all the flash cards I’ve forgotten, there’s one set I think of often: Famous Black People in American History. Not long ago, I decided to see if it was still around, and sure enough, it was right where I’d left it a couple of decades ago (at mom’s house). (A little more worn and tattered than I remembered, but not terribly surprising considering all the time we spent with them.)

Famous Black People in American History flash cards

You see, one of the many lessons my mom instilled in me was that our history was worth celebrating for more than just 28 days of the year. And with her experiences during and after the Civil Rights era, it was her mission to reinforce to me that no matter what the world may say or do, my heritage means something. I mean something. And “Black history” means much more than just the familiar (yet meaningful) phrases of Dr. King.

Each person in my flash card set faced some sort of struggle to take their rightful place in history, and with that struggle comes the resolve and courage to take a stand…something that’s part-and-parcel with the Black experience in America. But thinking about all of this through the lens of our profession and our responsibilities as client counselors raises the question: how can brands effectively recognize Black History Month, while also considering pressures from consumers and stakeholders to “take a stand” on societal issues that surface throughout the year?

To answer the first part of the question, I think brands can take a lesson from my mom: recognizing the contributions of Blacks and African Americans shouldn’t be solely reserved for February. As brands consider internal and external communications strategies, doing so with an eye toward diversity, equity and inclusion can help elevate a diverse set of voices and experiences on a consistent basis. Formulating an effective approach will take time – and multiple voices at the table – to ensure authenticity and the right tone. But that effort will turn any Black History Month content strategy into a natural extension of a year-round commitment.

Answering the second part of the question is more challenging, as it ventures into a realm where some decision-makers may feel uncomfortable due to potential reputational challenges. No one wants to be accused of co-opting a mission or movement for “points” or profit (and no one wants to face the wrath of the opposition). Finding the right answer for your company requires a thoughtful and deliberate approach, but there are lessons to be learned from the historical figures in my flash cards: follow your core values, lean on others to gain an understanding of what you may not inherently know, let authentic voices drive the conversation and more than anything, be firm in your convictions.