Beginner’s Guide to Black History Month

Grab a pen and paper and set a timer for three minutes. Now list ten historical black Americans including his or her major contribution to our country. Don’t list anyone who is currently alive, and leave out any musicians or athletes. You may not include Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, or Sojourner Truth.

If you’re a non-black person who was educated in the US, it’s unlikely that you are able to crank out a robust list of highly influential historical black Americans (not including entertainers or athletes) without having to really think about it. You may feel confident coming up with two or three figures, but then struggle to think of more than five. You may even disregard such a challenge because it triggers the kind of embarrassment that occurs when adults are faced with knowledge deficits in topics we should know more about. You could even get defensive while reading this, and be tempted to post a lengthy list just to show you’re more woke than the average American.

Perhaps you are completely aware that you don’t know enough about black history. Whether you are conscious of the holes in your education or whether you didn’t even know the holes existed, it’s time to take responsibility for filling in the gaps left by our American educational system. What better time to begin than now, during Black History Month?

Before we explore some of the ways in which beginners can get into Black History Month, it’s important to clarify a few things:

First, we must recognize that Black History Month is inherently problematic. Many black scholars and activists believe that Black History Month should be abandoned entirely because it continues the pattern of treating contributions by people of color as separate from others, a problem described in the recent article, The Racist Undertones Of The ‘Urban Contemporary’ Grammys Category.

Additionally, Black History Month must include a commitment to black futures. Racial justice organizers and movements such as Black Lives Matter encourage us to call February “Black History Month + Black Futures Month” in order to make sure we are continuously addressing the ongoing problems that created the need for a special month in the first place.

Most importantly, our interest in black lives cannot stop on the last day of this month. “Every day, not just the days in February, should be an opportunity to learn about black history, experiences and people” (teachingtolerance.org). We can utilize Black History Month as an entry point for our commitment to doing better during the other 11 months of the year.

This undertaking is not only valuable and fulfilling, but it’s way easier than you think. In fact, beginners can launch into their education about black history and black futures simply by continuing with activities they already do. Here is a list of suggestions to get started:

Socialize over dinner.

Order a set of Black History Cards and keep them on the dinner table at home so you can learn with others when you sit down to eat. The cards, designed by black-owned company Urban Intellectuals, are now available in two volumes with the second volume dedicated entirely to black women. Each deck features 52 people with whom we should all be familiar. After exploring these glossy, fun-size cards you’ll have no trouble completing the task described earlier.

Read for pleasure.

Grab a book featuring the lived experience of a black character, whether fictional or real. Most bookstores offer a special display during Black History Month, but to make the selection process easier Penguin Classics has reprinted a handful of early 20th century books by black writers. Three engaging page-turners that come highly recommended include Passing by Nella Larsen, The Blacker the Berry by Wallace Thurman, and Black No More by George S. Schuyler.

Listen to a Podcast.

For folks who struggle to find time to read, podcasts are an excellent way to learn more about black talent in the podcast stratosphere and to delve into the topics black podcasters consider important. Podcasts with engaging hosts, interesting topics, and insightful commentary include Code Switch, The Stoop, Another View, and Represent. Subscribe to these and you’ll receive new episodes as they come out.

Watch Netflix.

Update your neglected Netflix queue with films about the lived experience of historical or current black Americans. Good picks currently available for streaming include The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, And Still I Rise, Fruitvale Station, Barry, 13th, and What Happened Miss Simone?

Get on Facebook.

Follow the Facebook pages of organizations dedicated to racial justice so you get information and news affecting black lives throughout the year, long after Black History Month is over. Make sure to select “see first” after you like these pages: Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, The Root, Black Youth Project 100, and HuffPost Black Voices.

Surf the web.

Looking for something to do online to break the monotony of answering emails? Type Black Lives Matter: What We Believe into your browser, then read up on the movement so you can proudly support it and articulate its goals to those who may still be confused. After learning more, you’ll be asking yourself why all institutions aren’t following the lead of the public high school in Vermont that chose to fly a Black Lives Matter flag outside the school for the entirety of Black History Month.

Treat yourself.

Indulge in some overdue self care and invest in black futures at the same time. Support black-owned body care companies such as Shea Moisture (available at most drug stores), Alikay Naturals, Karen’s Body Beautiful, and Eden BodyWorks which offer products ranging from luxuries like body butter and candles to essentials like shampoo and soap.


In the inspiring TED Talk 50 Shades of Gay photographer and activist iO Tillett Wright reminds us, “Familiarity is the gateway drug to empathy.” To this end, Black History Month offers a perfect opportunity for non-black Americans to become more interested in and supportive of black lives. Instead of lamenting over the embarrassing gap in our formal history education we can take matters into our own hands simply by shifting the lens of the activities we already enjoy like reading, podcasting, and surfing the web. By adding a few new resources to your already-existing activity repertoire you can make Black History Month the beginning of your investment in black lives — both past, present, and future.