Black History Month: The Art of American History

February 12, 2024
Black History Month: The Art of American History

Throughout the course of America’s history, there has been an uncomfortable truth that many Black Americans have faced: we have lost access to our past. Slavery was a time in our history that redefined our story in the most tangible way. We often forget that many of the sociopolitical challenges we see today are a result of that lost history. However, we are able to define our own stories now by being intentional about honoring Black history as part of America’s history.

Our closest reach to Black history today has been through art, in large part, simply because it connects us to the traditions of our ancestors. Each year, Black History Month expands our views of tradition and enables us to continue striving to be part of a history that remains largely untouched.

The History of Black History Month

Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and the “father of Black history,” first established “Negro History Week” in 1926 to expand the consciousness of American history by teaching Black history and culture in public schools. Woodson selected the second week of February to observe Negro History Week as it coincided with the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, a profound abolitionist and advocate for human rights.

By the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement motivated the evolution of Negro History Week to Black History Month. President Gerald Ford would eventually be the first president to formally designate February as Black History Month during our country’s 1976 bicentennial anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. National Black History Month was later signed into law by Congress in 1986.

The Arts and the Harlem Renaissance

This year’s theme for Black History Month is “African Americans and the Arts.” Black art is a combination of African, Caribbean and Black American experiences that have taken the form of some of the greatest visual, literature, and other cultural expressions we have ever seen. With such a rich story, we still have trouble telling it, however. Art by Black American artists account for just 1.9% of all auction sales between 2008 and mid-2022. Of more than 8,000 Marvel comic book characters, only 14 are Black. As of 2023, just 6% of writers, directors, and producers of US-produced films are Black. Despite this, sociopolitical movements have drawn more attention to Black art as a guiding light for hope, empowerment, and resiliency over the past few years. It has been the key to untold stories that have helped to preserve the Black experience. 

One shining example of the power of art in the Black American culture is what we saw during the Harlem Renaissance from the 1910s through the 1930s. It was a time when the light on the African American culture was brighter than it had ever been as it was embodied by the richness of black literature, music, and performance arts. It was the talent of remarkable individuals such as Langston Huges, Zora Neale Hurston, and Josephine Baker that not only redefined African American art, but also created avenues for other Black entrepreneurs to flourish in Harlem as consumers and socializers of the arts. Black-owned businesses made up 25% of all businesses in Harlem by 1916. Just five years later in 1921, that number went up to 35%. Most of these consisted of grocery stores, restaurants, beauty salons, real estate offices, and saloons, perfect places to brand, expand and preserve Black culture and arts.

Black Entrepreneurialism and Innovation

But contributions to art barely scratch the surface of Black contributions to the U.S. economy and our rich entrepreneurial history of innovation. Home Technology was one of the top billion-dollar industries of 2023 of which Mary Van Brittan Brown, a Black nurse, contributed to with her invention of the home security system. Her work is expected to elevate the industry to $48 billion by 2026. Along with this, Daniel Hale Williams, one of first Black doctors to perform open-heart surgery in the U.S., has made significant contributions to a growing healthcare industry. This market is expected to reach $665 billion by 2028. As you can see, inclusion in business matters.

As entrepreneurs, you have the power to help preserve Black History and minimize the disparities that exists in the historical representations of people of color and the arts. Here are some ways we can do this:

  1. Engage with Black-owned businesses and vendors wherever possible.
  2. Invest in Black art, whether you’re commissioning a Black photographer for professional headshots or purchasing art from a Black painter for your lobby.

  3. Schedule a company outing for Black History Month to a museum exhibit, performance or other event. Activities that focus on learning and inclusive activities do wonders for company culture. Remember to comply with applicable wage and hour requirements for your employees during the outing.
  4. Talk to HR and marketing professionals with experience in helping businesses create a company culture and public presence that implements best practices in Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging.

Celebrating and supporting Black history shouldn’t end on March 1. For additional reading, take a look at our previous blog detailing the value of Black-owned businesses. We also encourage entrepreneurs to explore resources available on TriNet’s HUB site for access to thought leadership, webinars, and a curated list of government opportunities for underrepresented businesses. Together, we can create a more inclusive and thriving entrepreneurial landscape.

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