Since 1976, every U.S. president has officially designated the month of February as Black History Month, a time for recognizing the achievements of African Americans and their central role in U.S. history. Other countries, including Canada (February) and the United Kingdom (October), also devote a month to celebrating Black history. Four PIMCO employees share their perspectives on what it means to be Black in America.
Q: What does Black History Month mean to you?
Kodjo Apedjinou, senior vice president, quantitative research analyst: Growing up in the West African country of Togo, I wanted dearly to be American. The influence of American culture was omnipresent even in French-speaking Togo, and as a nerdy middle schooler in the mid-1990s trying desperately to be cool, I kept up with the latest American music, sports, movies and TV shows.
Years later, during a trip to Spain, I was surprised to hear Tupac Shakur’s “Changes” and a few other songs from my middle school years in a bar in Cadiz and was impressed by the crowd’s enthusiasm. I realized then that the influence of American culture was global and that African American culture and contributions formed a significant pillar of U.S. soft power and global influence.
I came to the U.S. for college and learned about the racial segregation enshrined in Jim Crow laws in “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston. I also read the works of James Baldwin, the poems of Langston Hughes, and learned about the contribution of African Americans to the founding of the United States. Additionally, books on Reconstruction, the New Deal, redlining, civil rights, and incarceration helped me understand the African American journey. It’s an inspiring tale of sacrifice, resiliency and the courage it takes to fight and die for one’s country even if that country sees you as less than a citizen. The African American experience shows that even the seemingly politically powerless can make beautiful contributions to civilization, and most importantly, it is a story of loving the country and trying to make it live closer to its ideals.
I officially became an American in 2015. I’m determined to follow in the footsteps of those before me, inspire my peers and those after me, and pay forward the resiliency and acts of the people who have made my unlikely journey and that of so many others possible. This is a rich heritage and this is what Black History Month means to me.
Burnell Thomas, senior vice president, senior services manager – technology infrastructure: Black History Month is a time to recognize and celebrate the impact and resilience of African American culture and remind ourselves that despite all the progress that has been made to advance social, economic and political equality, there is still work to be done. Black History Month offers an opportunity to reflect on the contributions of Black Americans and the challenges they’ve faced throughout history. It’s also a time for all of us to be more inclusive and to understand and reflect on the importance of diversity and its contribution to the greatness of our country and the richness of our collective heritage. And it is a time to ask, “What if?” What if we didn’t have to review and define Black history through the prisms of stigma and historical adversity, including race-based exclusion from health, educational, social and economic resources? What if we recognized the contributions of all people . . . every month?
Q: PIMCO Black has chosen the theme of Black resilience for Black History Month. What are your thoughts on Black resilience?
Shona Lewis, client communications associate: Black people were always resilient because we HAD to be. Resilience is defined as the ability of a person to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, and major life changes. We have overcome and are still fighting. From slavery, the civil rights movement, workplace disparities, etc., we have persevered to be a major part of American history and society. The importance of Black History Month is that it highlights our contributions in order to inspire our future generations.
Q: What is one thing you wish people knew about Black culture (but don’t?)
Thomas: Black culture is not just a culture – it is a state of being, a way of life and a state of mind rooted in our collective experiences both past and present.
Lewis: Black culture is American culture. Our influence throughout history can be seen across all aspects of American society – from inventions to education, music, fashion, entertainment, and cuisine, etc., the list goes on. We’ve showcased our talents and launched movements to secure our rights as people. Keeping our livelihood and identity in the forefront is a main priority, as is continuing to teach future generations about our past. Carter G. Woodson, author, historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, said it best: “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”
Q: How has being Black influenced your career/life choices?
Sheldon Fox, account associate: Being Black has affected my career and life choices moderately, but I have been influenced more by where I am from than by my race itself. I grew up in a place (Des Moines, Iowa) where there were few Black people and even fewer in leadership positions. That being the case, it was harder to see myself in a leadership position because I had zero Black teachers, professors, or mentors throughout my life. Thus, I wanted to go somewhere and do something where I would be surrounded by smart people with diverse backgrounds from all over the world. For me, diversity of perspective is one of the most important facets of any organization. At PIMCO, I have already met many great role models from all over the world.
Q: Name one African American who you find inspirational. What about them is inspiring?
Fox: The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson was probably the first Black scientist I ever knew of, and he did incredible things in his field at a time when there were few Black people in it. He did not let his appearance or background dictate what he wanted to do in life and he continues to be an inspiration for all, regardless of race.
Apedjinou: The whole African American community has been inspirational to me. It has built and accomplished beautiful things in tough conditions. However, if I have to name one person, Gen. Colin Powell was by far the person I was most impressed with and wanted to be like when I was growing up. First, his full name sounded very powerful to a young boy like myself, and being at the pinnacle of American military power as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and successfully overseeing Operation Desert Storm made him a hero. He showed me what was possible in America.
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