How Not to Celebrate Black History Month and How to Do It Instead
Here’s what you shouldn’t do during Black History Month: serve a “black” meal.
Don’t follow in New York University and Loyola University Chicago’s footsteps and offer a Black History Month menu with fried chicken and Kool-Aid in your cafeteria. And don’t celebrate by having corn bread and watermelon water for your office lunch.
But why? We’re just trying to celebrate. Everyone loves food.
Last year, a dining hall at NYU served a Black History Month meal with Kool-Aid, watermelon-flavored water, cornbread, collared greens and ribs. Students spoke out about how offensive the offerings were, and the president of the university issued an apology, calling it “inexcusably insensitive.” The same thing happened at Loyola. A dining hall served a Black History Month menu featuring stereotypical food items, which angered students at the university.
Why having a Black History Month meal could turn out badly
Dr. Kimya Dennis, an associate professor of sociology and criminal studies at Salem College in North Carolina, says that most institutions generally aren’t inclusive and tend to ignore racial issues year round, so when they attempt to celebrate Black History Month, oftentimes they are doing so shallowly and insincerely. She said it’s like they’re putting a Band-Aid over the real issues at hand.
“So if they decide to celebrate Black History Month, that’s the one time where they address blackness whereas any other time black people who attend schools or work there, feel like their blackness has to be downplayed,” Dennis told USA TODAY regarding any institution that wants to celebrate the month.
April Reign, the woman behind the #OscarsSoWhite movement and consultant on issues of diversity, inclusion and representation, says that anytime an organization is trying to be performative instead of contextualizing the history and culture behind their Black History Month celebration, it doesn’t turn out well.
“The goal of Black History Month, I think, is to celebrate the culture, and I believe that you are better able to celebrate by learning more about yourself if you’re part of that community or learning more about someone else as opposed to merely getting a plate of food without any context as to why that particular food was important at a particular time in this nation’s history,” Reign told USA TODAY.
The other problem, Reign says, with serving a Black History Month meal is that oftentimes the planning committee and people who green-light these events are not black and the result is a very one-sided idea of what a Black History Month meal would look like.
How you can celebrate Black History Month through food instead
Reign says that if people are going to serve food to celebrate, there has to be an educational component to it. If you’re going to serve cornbread or collared greens, then you should have open dialogue as to why you’re serving cornbread and include some historical context to make it into a learning experience. Discuss the history of that food as it pertains to black culture.
“One must ask the question: Who is deciding what the black food is?” said Reign. “It is not clear to me, what is a ‘black food.’ There are no foods that aren’t available to all people, to all cultures. … There isn’t anything that we would solely list as a white food, so why would we do that with black people?”
Dennis adds that there are different black identities, and she challenges institutions to think critically and beyond the “lazy Kentucky Fried Chicken cornbread thing.”
“There’s different cultures of African identities, and we have cornbread, collared greens, watermelon — which actually isn’t an insulting thing to eat unless whites use it to mock us,” said Dennis.
If you’re keen to recognize Black History Month in some sort of fashion, there are ways to go about it without being racially insensitive.
Dennis recommends you have a planning committee that includes black people.
Dennis added that there are other ways of supporting the black community without serving up a meal of fried chicken and cornbread. Have events catered by black caterers and chefs and support black-owned businesses like food trucks and food festivals.
Be ‘informative and not performative’
Reign also says it’s best to not just limit your celebrations to the month of February.
“You know February is coming after January every single year,” said Reign who encourages schools and universities to weave in black history to their curriculum.
“if you’re in science class maybe you’re talking about ‘Hidden Figures’ that particular month,” said Reign. “There’s a way to lurk it into the lesson so that’s it’s informative and not performative without it being obvious that we’re celebrating only because it’s Black History Month — let’s incorporate achievements of different cultures throughout the year.”