Black History For Sale?

February is known as Black History Month.  It’s when television programming and event calendars bloom with the images and stories of people of African descent.  You can also tell it’s February by the ubiquitous corporate Black History Month ads and displays – ubiquitous only where Black people are likely to see them.   Companies like Popeye’s and Seagram’s Gin have long been in the act.  Coca Cola’s commemoration features an interactive timeline where you can see how Black history and the coke bottle ‘evolved.’  McDonald’s takes it a step further with its 365 Black campaign highlighting that Black history is year round.   Some celebrations reach hard to find a connection to their “brand.”  This year’s favorite is from the Minnesota Chiropractic Association whose celebration who will “salute” the first chiropractic patient – a Black man.  Now add that to your history trivia collection.

Don’t get me wrong.  I think commemorating Black history and the history of all peoples, genders and social movements – especially the many social movements often marginalized by dominant narratives – is critically important.  History teaches us much and the heroes and sheroes that make our lives possible should be named and certainly celebrated.  It’s a problem when Black History becomes a thinly disguised vehicle for targeted predatory marketing – that is using culture, symbols, leaders, tailored imagery and other vehicles for marketing unhealthy products to a specific group or demographic.

Companies producing soda, high fat foods, alcohol and tobacco products are leading proponents of predatory marketing, often pushing products that make Black people (and often other people of color) history by death and disease.   Fortunately, there is a long history of struggle to hold companies accountable and even turn back these practices.  Kool Mixx, PowerMaster malt liquor, Crazy Horse are just a few of the more blatant industry targeting efforts that met with widespread community resistance which, ultimately resulted in the products being pulled from the shelves.  Even hip hop artists have stepped into the fray, penning lyrics that reflect community anger at such predatory marketing campaigns.  Two classic examples and personal favorites are Public Enemy’s classic Million Bottle Bags and Aztlan Nation, Dead Gringo Malt Liquor. (WARNING: both have explicit lyrics and should not be viewed by minors or anyone who would rather not be exposed to profanity or hip hop.)

Celebrating the resistance to such cooptation and exploitation is certainly worth a nod this Black History Month.  Some of the most influential heroes and sheroes in my life were leaders in this struggle that reached its height in the early 90s.  People like Mandrake, who in super hero fashion would take to the Chicago streets in black mask and work clothes and “blackwash” offending billboards often to the cheers of community residents.  Paul Kelly, another Chicago land native who stood with movement leaders like Mandrake, Kwesi Harris and thousands of others to take the resistance movement to corporate headquarters.  These unsung heroes faced arrests, beating and in the case of Mandrake, even their lives, in the struggle against corporate exploitation and cooptation of our culture.

With significant increases in diabetes and other problems related to increased consumption of unhealthy products, the stakes are even higher today.   It’s time for a renewed movement to stop predatory marketing to our children and our communities at large. This means limiting corporate access to where our children live, learn and play; reducing screen time and corporate marketing to kids; and working to cut the ties of predatory sponsorship so our organizations can be free and independent to advance community interests.

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