Black History Month a lucrative time for some black professionals

Maya Angelou speaks at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. Black History Month is a time of heightened demand for black talent and expertise on the speaking circuit.

Kai Ryssdal: We are, as of today, a little more than halfway through Black History Month. Proclamations and resolutions by presidents and Congresses, going back decades, set aside the month of February as a time for Americans to increase their awareness of African-Americans and our shared history.

Which means that every February companies roll out ads linking the achievements of black Americans to everything from Heineken to Harleys. Here's a slightly less cynical note: What began in 1926 as Negro History Week is now one of the busiest and most lucrative months for black professionals on the public speaking circuit.

Christopher Johnson reports.


Christopher Johnson: Book Maya Angelou to come speak to your company or college. Trust me. Because when the 83-year-old poet, author and civil rights icon gets on the mic -- or even on the telephone -- she turns it on.

Maya Angelou: I speak about people who were chained, and dared to live, and sang songs like, "By and by, by and by, I'm gonna lay down this heavy load." Amazing!

Even more amazing, Angelou says, will be the day when black history -- and black speakers -- become popular year-round.

Angelou: The celebrities will be more sought after in June, then in October. So they wouldn't all be jammed up together in one month.

But, 'til then -- for the distinguished and less famous black speaker -- February pays.

George Currey: On the speaking circuit, we have a joke.

George Curry is a syndicated columnist, and former editor of the black news magazine Emerge.

Curry: We call it "Black Employment Month," because some people will hire black speakers in February, but no other time throughout the year.

Curry's not complaining. Not a lot. He earns a nice slice of his living this month, on the road, behind podiums.

Business is also sweet this time of year for booking agents. Bob Davis is senior vice president of The American Program Bureau, the folks who handled Martin Luther King's speaking gigs. Today's roster includes Julian Bond, Michael Eric Dyson, and Patti LaBelle. APB's college division sees a big spike in February.

Bob Davis: Maybe a third of the annual business is done in a month. You can fill somebody's dance card pretty full during the month of February.

That could mean three weeks of appearances at universities, corporate events, and nonprofit functions. At $30,000 a speech for featured talent... let me just do some figuring here. Whoa -- $630,000.

Curry: Public speaking pays very, very well. You would never think you could make this kind of money.

Curry and Maya Angelou agree -- black speakers should just be seen as speakers, who have valuable things to say throughout the year. But until black history truly goes 365, February can be prettyyyy, pretty good for black talent.

In Oakland, I'm Christopher Johnson for Marketplace.

About the author

Christopher Johnson is a freelance journalist who has worked in public radio as a producer, reporter, editor, commentator, and manager.

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