October marks Black History Month (BHM) in the UK. BHM is a dedicated opportunity to celebrate Black people’s achievements throughout history and discuss some of the continued challenges Black communities face. It is also an opportune time for HR teams to elevate diverse voices and champion inclusivity across the organisation – provided your efforts are sincere and authentic. 

What is Black History Month?

Black History Month is dedicated to sharing and celebrating the impact of Black heritage and culture.

Black History Month began in the US in 1926 as Negro History Week, before expanding to a month later in the century. In the US, Black History Month is celebrated in February. This date was originally chosen by American historian Carter G. Woodson because February is the birth month of two important figures in Black history:

  • US President Abraham Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation
  • African American abolitionist, author and orator Frederick Douglass.

Black History Month was first celebrated in the UK in 1987, marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean.

Why do we celebrate Black History Month in the UK?

Black History Month in the UK was started by Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, who travelled from Ghana to the UK as a refugee in 1984. This year marks the 30th anniversary of BHM.

Akyaaba talks about how he developed the idea for the annual celebration in reaction to a widespread ‘crisis of identity’ among Black communities: ‘I was stirred up in the mid-1980s by the identity crisis that Black children faced as some brazenly would not identify with Africa and shrank when called an African.’

For Akyaaba, Black History Month should ‘inculcate self-pride’ among Black communities – because ‘self-pride is the catalyst for achievement.’

In contrast to the US, Black History Month in the UK happens in October. Akyaaba explains that October ‘will engage most the minds of children and youth in the UK’ because it occurs before major exams and after the long summer holiday.

Cherron Inko-Tariah MBE expands on the meaning of Black History Month to people within the UK:

‘Black History Month is a time of celebration, recognition and sombre reflection. Black people from African and Caribbean communities have been an integral part of British history and society long before 1948. Despite the epidemic of racism and unfairness affecting black people, we continue to break barriers and use our creativity and innovation to influence lives today.’

Why is Black History Month important in the workplace?

Akyaaba and Cherron’s comments demonstrate how Black History Month is intimately connected with identity, pride and societal recognition.

Black people have contributed enormously to British history and society. When we don’t uplift and celebrate these achievements, it has a profound and continuing impact on Black communities. That’s true both at an individual level, relating to identity formation, and at a larger scale, in terms of continuing racism and inequality.

In an organisational context, celebrating Black History Month is an important demonstration of your continued commitment to diversity, inclusion and belonging. It can also be a valuable opportunity to have meaningful conversations about race.

Those commitments aren’t performative – or at least, certainly shouldn’t be. Diversity and inclusion initiatives can have a powerful impact if they’re authentic:

  • Increased employee engagement and productivity
  • Increased innovation and time-to-innovation
  • More positive working environment
  • Higher levels of job satisfaction
  • Increased collaboration
  • Improved recruitment and retention

Celebrating Black History Month isn’t the sole answer to improving workplace inclusion and belonging. But not celebrating is antithetical to progress here.

5 ideas to celebrate Black History Month 2023

Here are five ideas for organisations to celebrate Black History Month in the workplace in an authentic and sincere way. 

1. Let your people lead

Black History Month is an excellent opportunity to collaborate with your people, to amplify Black contributors.

HR teams should be wary of top-down programmes – even well-meaning ones – that don’t centre Black voices. Authentic, thoughtful Black History Month programming comes from letting your people lead. Work with employee resource groups to ensure everyone feels heard and elevate stories that your people want heard.

2. Create thematic content

Black History Month magazine – a leading light in the organisation and celebration of BHM – has chosen the official theme for 2023 of Saluting our Sisters. This theme ‘pays homage to Black women who have had contributions ignored, ideas appropriated, and voices silenced.’

Aligning your internal programming with this theme could be an excellent starting point to create meaningful, distinct content that’s tailored to this year’s Black History Month. This approach helps keep your workforce engaged with content and demonstrates an authentic commitment to understanding and promoting Black History. 

3. Hire (and pay) guest speakers

One of the best ways to educate your workforce in an engaging, fun way is through holding events with relevant guest speakers. This approach also means centring and paying Black voices, which helps contribute to diversity and equity goals.

It’s important to consider how you reimburse speakers, though, to ensure you’re not perpetuating inequity. Author and DEI expert Janice Gassam Asare explains the ethnicity speaker pay gap, noting that ‘speakers from racialised backgrounds are often underpaid or unpaid for their labour.’

4. Create community spaces

Black History Month is a time of celebration but also of reflection and discussion, often around difficult or sensitive issues. For example, over a third of people from ethnic and religious minority groups in Britain have experienced some form of racist assault, according to new research conducted by The University of Manchester, the University of St Andrews and King’s College London.

Organisations have an opportunity and a responsibility to create safe spaces for these discussions, be they in person or virtual. Enabling these conversations allows organisations to engage sincerely with these issues – for more than one month.

5. Support wider Black communities

Celebrating Black History Month at work should also include looking beyond the workplace at the challenges faced by the wider Black community. According to the Mental Health Foundation, rates of mental health problems can be higher among some BAME groups than among White people.

Plenty of organisations are dedicated to tackling these challenges and improving equality. If mental health disparity is an issue you’re interested in tackling, for instance, you could choose to support Black Minds Matter.

Investing resources – through donations or encouraging volunteering, for instance – can be a valuable way to make a difference for Black people and communities. 

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‘What is Black History Month?’ might seem like a simple question. Black History Month is dedicated to sharing and celebrating Black history. But BHM is also much more than a month – it is an opportunity to cultivate a truly inclusive company culture that engages sincerely with challenging issues around race, ethnicity and equality.