In celebration of Black history, TODAY asked various celebrities, rising stars, chefs and politicians: What does Black history mean to you — and how do you celebrate or honor Black culture?
This collection of reflections from celebrities such as Tia Mowry and Sheryl Lee Ralph and politicians Stacey Abrams, Cory Booker and more are powerful reminders of a deep, rich and important history full of triumph, struggle, joy and perseverance.
Read their 17 empowering and inspiring messages here.
Karen Pittman, actor
I was very young when I first heard a racial epithet directed towards me, kindergarten, on the playground. And it was said in such a way that I understood that I was made differently but not equal in the eyes of the young girl who said it. I went home and felt shamed, dimmed, smaller. My mother, who was a very light skinned Black woman, looked saddened and disappointed when I told her about my experience. And we began a journey to understand what it means to be Black by learning about Black history.
Since that time, my personal journey through Black history has been about searching for people who embody pride, confidence and love. These are unique values that Black people brought to this country in spite of the insurmountable odds. My mother felt, as many Black folks do, that if my only experience of Blackness was through the pain of being marginalized, that I wouldn’t really be interested in investigating and exploring the history of Black people in this country and beyond. So we talked about Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm and Nelson Mandela. But I would also learn about my incredible grandfather, who led his family of eight, as a cotton picking share cropper with a grade school education. He and my grandmother helped my mother be the first in her family to obtain a college degree — in Jim Crow South, no less. It would forever change her life for the better and mine.
This is my Black history. I have created my life in its reflection. It is a story of boldness, innovation and excellence in every way. A living history that enlightens the world through art and acting, through reflecting compassion and empathy, and by embodying the confidence that no obstacle is too great to overcome. What a gift learning Black history has been for me, in the pursuit of a dream, and in many ways, seeing it come true.
And if I could reach back and speak to the young girl I was, hearing those painful words on that playground many years ago, I would say to her, “There are no words that can define who you are, except the words you tell yourself. So, be encouraged, walk tall, and don’t let anyone dim your light.
Naomi Osaka, tennis player
Black history means celebrating our culture but also learning from the past. My ancestors are from Haiti and that culture means so much to me. The history of Haiti is largely untold but is so fascinating and I hope to help tell that story one day and to support the Black community in any way I can.
I honor my Black culture through the work I do both on and off the court, and it was the driving reason I created my company KINLÒ. Developing products for all people of color with the goal of educating communities where the conversations about protecting our skin isn’t happening is something I am really proud of. For me, KINLÒ, is more than a functional skincare brand, it’s a brand that I hope sparks conversations in the Black community. That’s the best way for me to honor Black culture.
Meagan Good, actor
Black history means to me, knowing where I come from. Knowing my worth and power because of whose shoulders I stand on. Knowing that I come from a lineage of resilient, gifted, powerful, brilliant, influential, creative world shifters as a Black woman. Black history means illuminating what we have overcome against all odds... and setting the course to be our ancestors’ wildest dreams. Taking pride in who we are and continuing to acknowledge the changes we’ve made in the world around us, and doing our part in continuing to transform it.
I celebrate every day. I celebrate by simply being proud of who I am as a Black woman… by loving my skin and myself. I celebrate by uplifting and loving on my brothers and my sisters. I celebrate by being unapologetic. I honor Black history by using my platform in every way I can to prayerfully set an example that we are all worthy and capable. That our authenticity and identity is our superpower. I honor Black history and Black culture by doing everything I can to make it easier for the little Black girl behind me.
Tia Mowry, actor
When I think of Black history, I think of my ancestors. I think of how they paved the way for me to be where I am today. And a huge part of that is bringing awareness to their strength, their journey, and their tenacity; it is all part of the celebration. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for their footprints.
I celebrate and honor Black history and Black culture by being unapologetically myself. By embracing all parts of who I am as a culture. And through honor, awareness, education, encouragement, and influence.
Sheryl Lee Ralph
Black history may be the shortest month of the year but it is long in contributions and achievements of Black people in America. People who have been ignored , invisible and unacknowledged for far too long. Black history for me is a time to unearth the beautiful truth about an amazing people that has been hidden for too long.
I live and breathe Black history every day of my life by putting myself to the test of being the best me I can be. By setting an example of excellence for myself and those around me.
Stacey Abrams, politician, activist, lawyer, author
My parents grew up in the segregated South and were active in the civil rights movement. I was raised with a deep appreciation for the history of Black people in America, and I revered both the storied civil rights leaders and many more who do not appear as often in textbooks. For me, Black history is about understanding both the progress earned and the hard, sometimes grisly truths along the way. The changemakers whose courage paved a brighter future were neither the beginning nor the end of this story.
My writing, my activism and my work as a public servant draw inspiration from countless Black inventors, educators, civil rights leaders, officeholders and others whose contributions have been well documented or hardly told. Learning those lesser told stories and hearing new stories from my parents are opportunities to celebrate and honor Black history and culture. I also use my platform to inspire others, particularly young Black women and girls, to embrace their ambition and carve their own history. Celebration and honor must also come in the form of honesty about the work that remains and a determination to move society one step closer to the dreams of those who came before us.”
Cassandra Freeman, actor
Black history to me is a time to reflect on all of the joy, diversity and brilliance that radiates from our people! My dreams have always been grounded by the fact that history shows us all time and time again that anything is truly possible! And that love is still the most radical force for change.
I celebrate Black History all year! There is so much to constantly absorb and appreciate about Black people. And I honor the legacy of those before me by voting and being of service to those who wish to make life better for us all. I purchase from Black-owned companies, read books and watch documentaries. We live in an extraordinary time where we can all absorb and appreciate any culture as deeply as our interest goes and I have always had an insatiable appetite!
Ryan Michelle Bathé, actor
When I was in middle school, I became acutely aware that many of my classmates simply had no appreciation of the accomplishments of Black Americans to American culture and society. I realized that connected to this lack of awareness was an ability to see me, and anyone who looked like me, as less than. The fact that they didn’t know about our contributions, meant, in their minds, that there simply were no contributions.
I became convinced, and I still am to an extent, that Black history means educating everyone on the fact that a certain group of Americans, who for over a hundred years weren’t even classified as fully human according to the constitution, still fought and died to make this country free and a haven for people all over the world to live the American dream.
I try to celebrate every day! I follow certain IG accounts and Twitter accounts, like PushBlack….which gives daily history lessons and it’s incredible. Michael Harriot always has a word about Black history that blows my mind.
I also keep my grandmother’s memory alive because she was connected to a time and place in American history (being born in 1911 in rural Tennessee) and lived to see so much around her change. It keeps me connected to the people who came before me.
Lastly, I follow the Auschwitz Museum Twitter page, because I will never forget when a Black WWII vet and a Holocaust survivor he liberated were reunited at my high school. All of our history, all of our liberation, is joined together.
Senator Cory Booker
I think (Black history)] it’s a part of this knowledge. You can’t have love, you can’t love your neighbor unless you know them. When we know our history — the truth of our history, the pain of our history the power of the overcoming that existed in our history — I think knowing that helps you love America more fully and deeply. And more important than that, I think it helps you be inspired to continue to work, making true on our nation’s ideas and our nation’s promise. Perhaps that’s the best thing about studying history is it makes for a better future.
I celebrate Black history month, first with a little humility because I feel like every Black history month, I read more and learn more about Black history. I think that one of the best things you can do is actually slow down and humble yourself. No matter what your age, no matter how many degrees you might have, studying this kind of stuff, you still can learn more. The second thing: I share and try to tell stories about Black history. And the third thing is, I recommit myself to try and live up to that which I have inherited from my ancestors. You can’t pay it back and you’ve got to try to pay it forward through continuing the commitment to our country. It should be a nation that lives up to its great promise.
Nina Compton, chef
Black history is about education and celebration. The only way to move forward is to know what took place before us and the leaps and bounds our ancestors made to allow us to be where we are today.
I grew up on St. Lucia, an island that is made up of predominantly African and African-European descent. It has always been important to me and my family to celebrate Black history. My father was Prime Minister of St. Lucia and one of his major goals was to help provide education and opportunity to everyone and this has directly impacted how I am today.
I try to shine a spotlight on Black people in the industry at my restaurants. Last year, throughout February, I collaborated with incredible Black chefs in New Orleans for a dinner series at Compere Lapin. This year, we are showcasing Black producers in various fields at Bywater American Bistro. We want to celebrate people that are pushing envelopes like our ancestors and continuing to make waves. We want to shine a spotlight on people paving the way for the next generation and also celebrating their success at the highest level.
Tabitha Brown, social media personality
Black history means: We were and still are powerful, important and enough. And our history matters.
I celebrate daily by being a proud authentic Black woman who lives a life of confidence and freedom! Never shrinking or changing who I am to make others feel comfortable. Striving everyday in the entertainment and business to leave a beautiful mark that one day will be talked about by future generations to come!
Coco Jones, actor, singer
Black history to me means resilience. Black people have always prevailed and we do it with such grace and class. I’m honored to be a Black person, and I try to constantly remind myself of where we’ve been, as it helps me continue towards where I’m going.
I celebrate Black history and Black culture by giving back to my community, and inspiring my younger generation to pursue their dreams, regardless of the obstacles. I know how important representation was for me growing up, and I try to be that for the girls who looked like me.
Cory Hardrict, actor
What Black history means to me is excellence. Continuously striving for greatness every day of your life. It means pain, joy, and also the freedom to dig much deeper into your ancestral bloodline!
Black history also means being that rose growing up through the concrete jungles of the inner city! It means being there for your mother because your father’s gone. Black is struggling to find your place in this world while being dehumanized every step of the way. But I wouldn’t change Black strength and perseverance for anything because being Black is all I know and I’m still here!
I am the American dream…still crafting my book in Black history!
I celebrate and honor Black history and culture by being the best husband to my wife and father to my kids every day of my life. Leading by example and giving all the love I have in my body to make sure they leave their legacy in this world with their Black excellence!!
Javicia Leslie, actor
The meaning of Black history is a layered conversation. On the surface, it’s one month in a year where our country recognizes the greatness of our ancestors and current leaders. However, deep within, it means so much more. It's the journey our people took from being slaves and cattle, to becoming the president of the United States. Black history means the roots of royalty in our homeland, the creativity within our natural being, and the dedication to persevering in the face of inhumane and deplorable conditions. Black history is the determination of super human athletes, the Godly sounds of musical geniuses, and the innovations of master minds. Black history is every day for me, as I walk free because of the fight in my bloodline. I am truly my ancestors wildest dreams, and I open the door for the future to soar even higher.
I celebrate Black history and Black culture by honoring my ancestors, my living family, and my community teachers/leaders. This past December, I celebrated Kwanzaa for the first time with my family. During this beautiful 7 day ceremony, I learned to honor those who paved the way for me in unity, self-determination, collective responsibility, cooperative economics, purpose, creativity and faith. Speaking their names and recognizing their contributions to my life in those specific values, ignited my year with the determination to continue to uplift those who paved my way.
Eris Baker, actor
To me, Black history month is defined as a celebration and a time to express thanks. Black history isn’t only about the hard moments we’ve had. It all boils down to honesty and displaying our true character.
I celebrate and honor Black culture through supporting Black-owned companies, donating to charities that support equality, and learning more about Black individuals and their contributions to society.
J.J. Johnson, chef
The exploration of Black history is ingrained in food and the best way to learn about our history for me is through food. Because for a long time our history and culture has been suppressed, it is very important to talk about Black history because a lot of our culture is based on whispers, storytelling and so-called myths. Any dish of the Black diaspora will tell you the true history of who we are.
I think honoring Black culture and Black history everyday builds a foundation of home for me.
One of my grandfather’s came from Barbados and fought in World War II. On the other side of the family, my grandmother who lived in North Carolina, moved to Harlem from the South to build a better life for herself in New York City. I honor my Black culture through their two lenses of how I look at society, how I should carry myself, what I should do, what I should contribute and continue my family legacy.
Going alongside that, all the Black greats that also have helped pave the way for the next generation. All the Black chefs that have worked at hotels, cooked for presidents, and built our agriculture system...that Black excellence has come through Harlem and New York City. For me to open my first restaurant in such a historical place like Harlem is the best way for me to pay tribute to that.
I honor my culture by making sure my kids are able to see Black culture through a lens that maybe they aren’t taught in the classroom.
Kiki Louya, chef
Black history is American history, and as with all history it is full of hills and valleys, highs and lows. It is as much about the Transatlantic Slave Trade, the Underground Railroad and the Civil Rights Act as it is about the Black Panthers’ breakfast program, Black Lives Matter and even Beyonce’s “Lemonade.”
Black history, like all history, is the story of strife, adversity, hate, love, joy, and perseverance, and it deserves to be told honestly and in its entirety no matter how uncomfortable it may be to hear. It deserves to be told because hiding the truth or distorting the details erases the voices of millions who fought too hard to be forgotten. For better or worse, it deserves to be told because it shows us our humanity, and that of which we are capable.
I celebrate and honor Black history by spending time each day to reflect. I reflect not only on those who came before me and what they endured for me to get here. But I also reflect on the present —how I show up, support and uplift Black voices and Black stories today.
As a chef, I may feel moved to make a recipe inspired by the late Edna Lewis and share it with those around me so that her legacy can live on and inspire others. Or I may shout out another Black creator for the work they do every day to produce content that educates, inspires and pushes our minds towards the uncomfortable places they need to go so healing and growth can take place.
But perhaps most importantly, I do this every year, not just during Black history month, because recognizing the contribution we, as Black people, make on the culture and history of this country is to recognize our excellence. It is the practice of loving ourselves unconditionally, and that is an act of power no one can take away from us no matter how hard they try.
Answers has been edited for length and clarity.