Don’t Just Hire Black Journalists During Black History Month

(AndreyPopov/Getty Images)

The end of Black History Month is near. And I’m glad because I’m tired of all the requests. 

Every January, I become popular with editors who slide into my DMs with increasing regularity. If I wasn’t able to look at a calendar or feel the nip in the air, those messages would be a sure sign that winter has arrived, and Black History Month is imminent. In fact, I guarantee that I will get an email on Feb. 29 inquiring about my availability to write — the leap year giving 11th-hour requests an extra day, and Women’s History Month behind it providing another opportunity to ask for content in Black women’s or feminist history. 

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I’m an award-winning journalist and a historian who specializes in African American history. I also am Black, female and Southern. I write creative, well-researched work on topics including how a tomato might be connected to the Underground Railroad, the complicated relationship between an ex-Confederate general and a doctor he once enslaved and how Black journalists with Southern accents face bias in broadcast media. In short, I check off a lot of boxes for editors in need of Black History Month articles or knowledge.

I became a historian — slogging through seven years of Ph.D. requirements after two years earning a master’s degree in journalism — because Black history is still under-appreciated and under-taught. It’s my pride and privilege to teach it to my fellow Americans in both my professional roles. I reach far more people with journalism than I ever would through an academic book with footnotes. 

So there’s a certain bittersweetness and last-minute crassness to the invitations that flood my inbox in early winter, when outlets suddenly hunger for content about Black communities. To be fair to my editorial brethren, journalists’ currency is timeliness — outlets crave content with a peg. Not to mention, if the media overlooked Black History Month, Black Twitter would surely note the silence. 

Still, while I do have my favorite media clients who reliably ask me to contribute, I would like to be “seen” or “found” as a writer much more throughout the year. 

Navigating Black History Month as a Black journalist

I’m not alone in being a Black journalist and historian asked to write or speak during Black History Month. My colleagues are also in high demand. 

I recently spoke with Charles McKinney, chair of Africana studies at Rhodes College in Tennessee and author of “Greater Freedom: The Evolution of the Civil Rights Struggle in Wilson, North Carolina. It was the morning of Feb. 19, before he’d had breakfast in sunny San Diego, where he gave two talks and a sermon about Black religious history at a church. From there, he flew to deliver a lecture on jazz and social change at a private high school in Virginia. Then, on the day he flew back to Tennessee, he was on a panel about Black art and resilience. That’s five different events over about a week. Meanwhile, “the job keeps jobbing, and life keeps ‘lifing,’” he said. 

Psyche Williams-Forson, chair of American Studies at the University of Maryland and writer of the James Beard Foundation Award-winning book “Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race,” said she weighs the following before accepting Black History Month opportunities: how long she has to be away from home, how much new research or refreshing the old is required, whether an institution conveys respect for her work and whether the pay aligns with the labor. Sometimes, she told me, “I get invitations in February, and they want me to talk about race, but they don’t acknowledge Black History Month. Maybe it’s a convenience or scheduling thing for them, but it’s interesting to not reference Black History Month.” Occasionally, she gets asked to speak for free or pretty close to it.

While she tries to be discerning about which Black history invitations she accepts, she tries to be flexible with nonprofit, student or community groups that don’t have bottomless budgets. But she knows the material and metaphorical value of her scholarship, and it’s sometimes the colleges and universities that can easily pay her fee that low-ball her. 

“You’re asking me to speak for $300, and you’re a private institution [that can afford more],” she said. “That doesn’t begin to put a keystroke on my computer. And this is not me saying, ‘I’m all that.’ People don’t understand the amount of gymnastics you have to go through to prepare a talk.” 

McKinney also noted the largely unspoken expectation that Black scholars have a racial duty to be present and accessible. He’s not overly troubled by that notion because he sees it as an extension of the original Negro History Week, on which Black History Month was founded. According to McKinney, founder Carter G. Woodson “envisioned this week as a community-based and communal effort to teach and emphasize and learn and understand Black history. So, to that end, Negro History Week was not based, in any substantive way, in schools. It’s based in Black communities, Black churches and civic organizations.” 

While McKinney feels honored and compelled to study and share Black history, he says his “gratitude and obligation are filtered through capacity” and what one person can do in the space of 28 (or 29) days. 

Williams-Forson said that fielding journalists’ calls and traveling for on-campus speaking gigs can be all-consuming. 

“Here’s part of what people don’t get with the Black history thing, as a Black scholar: I’m torn between community-engaged work or work that involves the community or small venues and [publicly sharing knowledge] and my own time and energy,” she said. “I’m not going to be this fearless, tireless leader who’s going to just do whatever because I should as a Black scholar. It’s ridiculous.”

Navigating Black History Month as an editor

Talking to my fellow historians made me think about my approach to Black writers as an editor — and what I often find galling about how editors approach me to write for Black History Month. There’s the request that is so general that it could be for any writer, as if Black writers are interchangeable; any would do. On the flip side, there’s the request that’s so specific and often only vaguely related to my expertise that it is a demanding lift. 

This is likely a result of what I hear regularly from colleagues: They can’t find Black writers or writers of color. I’ve learned that this statement is often about their effort. I’ll ask directly or wonder how they are looking and why they don’t know any in the first place. After all, our jobs as editors are not merely about cranking out copy. They are about cultivating relationships with our fellow journalists, which means introducing ourselves to a wide array of potential collaborators. I understand some finesse is needed when I, as editor, approach a writer about a commission. 

Just recently, I contacted a Black woman journalist with decades of experience. I’d long admired her work from afar and wanted to know if she might consider a story idea that was about something I’d never seen her write about. But, as I told her, I know she’s a reporter’s reporter and capable of doing many things across beats. I didn’t know that she began her career as a health reporter and wanted to flex those skills again — perfect for the story I needed. 

That story had nothing to do with race. Beyond seeking Black talent all year, I seek Black writers for assignments that are diverse in form and topic. Our industry sometimes finds it easier to “include” Black and brown voices through first-person, “own voice” essays — which enrich our repertoire of stories but are often devalued compared to reported stories that require more sources and pay more. I try to hire Black writers for beat reporting because you don’t see as many of us getting those jobs or assignments on, say, food, agriculture, housing or politics. 

But you see a lot of us on the “race beat,” whether we call it that or not. I don’t self-flagellate over being Black and a writer, or being pigeonholed as a “Black writer” whose best and first subjects are supposed to be race and racism. But I know that being Black in journalism can mean that you’re presumed an expert about race, and simultaneously, presumed to be non-neutral. 

This Black History Month, I wrote next to nothing. I did one stressful but fruitful multiday trip where I spoke about a magazine article I’d written and where I could see the impact of my work. Not writing gave me more time to reach out to Black writers; I dedicate time each month to talking to new contributors. I could also enjoy various publications’ Black History Month content as a reader. I responded to editors’ thoughtful queries with a kind and short “Could you consider this for later in the year? I’d love to work with you, but I can’t take on any Black History Month work.” And that felt good. 

Cynthia Greenlee

Dr. Cynthia Greenlee is a historian, award-winning writer and editor based in North Carolina. Her work focuses on the intersection of race and history, reproductive justice and food. In 2020, she won a James Beard Foundation Award, the nation’s highest honor in food writing, and she was the lead editor of “The Echoing Ida Collection” anthology of Black people writing about reproductive and social justice. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Elle, Essence, Garden & Gun, The Nation, The New York Times, Vox and Smithsonian magazine, among many other publications. Follow her on Twitter, or visit her at