My earliest memories of Black History Month elicit images of Harriet [Tubman], Rosa [Parks], and Martin [Luther King Jr.]. Black and white visuals of the Civil Rights Movement were bookended by memorizing famous “firsts.” Every February, we engaged with Black life in the way one might a museum, quickly surveying each exhibit, reading brief summaries of pioneers and past relics. At that age, Black History Month was an opportunity to look back, but in the present, I was the only Black girl in my lower Manhattan classroom.
I arrived at NYU with plans to become a doctor. Like so many eager undergraduates, a charismatic figure made me reconsider my entire trajectory. Her name was Claire Huxtable. This fictional “Cosby Show” character, played by Phylicia Rashad, was the first Black woman I had ever seen practice law. She was successful and owned a brownstone and looked just like me. My decision was made.
After graduating from Columbia Law School, I eventually moved to a firm, working closely with a partner who specialized in the media and entertainment space. He quickly became a mentor, sponsor and friend, helping me find my voice in this unfamiliar territory. I was a fourth-year law firm associate when he came to tell me that he was leaving. He asked if I would join him at another firm to build out its content, media and entertainment practice group. This wasn’t an opportunity that was afforded to many, let alone many that looked like me. It was through this experience that I became one of the first people in my law school class to be named partner. I was finally Claire Huxtable.
However, this wasn’t a sitcom. For everything that I had achieved, I was still the only Black woman in the room. Reality often undercuts Black joy that way. See, this was before we told people to “Bring your whole self to work.” I was alone in a space that didn’t reflect my identity. As waves of alienation began to take me under, I found myself challenged by my own success.
Can you be the first? Can you be the only one?
I took those feelings and finessed them into motivation. I walked into every meeting, every courtroom, more prepared than those around me because I refused to allow anyone to question my presence, including myself. Having to work twice as hard is an understood penance of being born Black and I leaned all the way in. I began to grow comfortable in my skin, but with that sense of self came a new question: If hard work is the only prerequisite for success, why am I still alone? I realized that the only difference in my story was that once upon a time a partner saw something in me and took a chance. He gave an opportunity to a person that didn’t look like anyone else in the room.
I eventually took my talents to YouTube Music, where I’m currently the first Black woman to serve as Director of Music Publishing. While I’ve been fortunate to lead many successful initiatives at YouTube, the true reflection of my work is in creating opportunities for others. I’m one of the executive chairs on the steering committee leading our #YouTubeBlack Voices fund. I’m a member of our senior advisory group that works with YouTube executive leadership to better support and uplift Black employees. I don’t do this work because it’s easy; I do it because it’s necessary. As Black people, we’re often asked to bear the burden of our own oppression. I can’t fix systemic racism, but I can open doors. That’s why the most important work I do is mentoring people that look like me. I want to provide opportunities that were afforded to me. I want them to know that they deserve this space too. I want to be the last Black woman to look around a room and realize she’s the only one there.
It is in this way that Black History Month allows us to see contemporary Black lives in the context of the long arc of Black history. It’s not just an occasion to reduce the centuries-long struggle for equality to a few figures in the black and white visuals from Black History Month programming. Black History Month inspires us to see our own story as part of the larger narrative; reminding us that the work of those that came before us is still being done by us.
Today I see Black History Month through the lens of my two children. Every February, they sit in a diverse classroom, learning about their past Black heroes, while celebrating their present Black excellence, and above everything else, demanding more from their future Black lives. They won’t have to look to fictional characters for inspiration, they can just look in the room.
Carletta Higginson is Director, Global Head of Music Publishing at YouTube. Previously, Higginson worked as Director, Music Publishing in North America for YouTube and Google Play Music.