Celebrate Black History Month: Noteworthy Figures

by Cadia Warner, Feature Editor

As many of us know, February is Black History Month. There are many ways to celebrate, including showing your support for black owned businesses, learning about black literature and art or learning about black history in your town. Start small by learning about some important black figures in our society!

Amanda Gorman- Did you get a chance to watch Joe Biden’s inauguration last year? If you did, chances are Amanda Gorman isn’t a new name to you. Born and raised in Los Angeles, the Harvard graduate is the youngest inaugural poet in history, having performed at the Library of Congress and Lincoln Center. Additionally, she’s performed for Biden and Obama prior to 2021 and has worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Al Gore, Secretary Hillary Clinton, Lalala Yousafzi and more. She’s received recognition from Scholastic IncYoungArts and “Glamour” Magazine as well as holds College Women of the Year and Webby awards. She even wrote Nike’s Black History Month campaign in 2020! Despite developing an auditory processing disorder and a speech impediment at an early age, Gorman’s determination and dedication has inspired her to work harder and overcome her obstacles to become more in tune with her craft.
Maya Angelou- If you’re a student, you’ve definitely heard this name before. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Maya Angelou joined the Harlem Writers Guild in the late 1950s. While she’s known for her poems and inspirational messages, she’s also a very accomplished author! In fact, she’s written 36 books with 30 best selling titles. Her first book published in 1970, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, made the bestseller list and immediately gained international acclaim. However, it was soon banned from schools because of Angelou’s honesty about taboo subjects at the time. Angelou’s brutal honesty about sensitive topics wasn’t as widely accepted as they would be in today’s society. Nevertheless, she always used her voice to unite people with similar stories and inform those who may be oblivious to things happening in the world around them.

Jesmyn Ward- Another name students may recognize, Jesmyn Ward is a brilliant author. The Mississippi native received her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) from University of Michigan and is currently a writing professor at Tulane University. Since then, she’s received the MacArthur Genius Grant, a Stegner Fellowship, a John and Renee Grisham Writers Residency and the Strauss Living Prize. She’s also won two National Book Awards for her novels, “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and “Salvage the Bones.” She was also a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award and won Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and Media for a Just Society Award. Ward’s works include strong themes of intergenerational trauma, inspired by her brother who passed away at a young age due to a tragic car accident as a result of drunk driving in 2000. She’s also not afraid of mentioning hard truths like substance abuse and neglect, making her writing embracingly real.

Tom Morello- You might recognize Tom Morello as the guitarist from Rage Against the Machine, a popular nu metal (a subgenre of alternative metal that incorporates elements from different genres) band from the 1990s. He’s an accomplished singer songwriter, rapper and political activist who has toured with various musical groups, coming from an array of genres. Aside from his musical achievements, he’s known for his socialist political views and activism. Throughout his career, he’s written lots of explicit, politically suggestive music. Born in Harlem and raised in Libertyville, Illinois, he graduated from Harvard with a Bachelor of Arts from the Committee on Degrees in Social Studies. Morello also co-founded Axis of Justice, a monthly radio program on Pacifica Radio based in North Hollywood.

Billie Holiday- Maybe you’ve heard about her in your history class while studying the Harlem Renaissance! Born in Philadelphia, Holiday became one of the greatest jazz singers from the 1930s-50s. While her father was a guitarist, she had no real musical training but was an instant hit at Harlem jazz clubs. She gained popularity and recognition with her unique vocal style and her recordings with other artists. Today, Holiday holds five Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2000.

Chadwick Boseman- You likely know this name, especially if you’re a Marvel fan. Chadwick Boseman was a proficient writer and director and a notable actor. Boseman is from Anderson, South Carolina and studied directing at Howard University. After college, he won a Drama League Directing Fellowship and an Acting Audience Development Committee Incorporated (AUDELCO) award. He was also nominated for a Jeff Award as a playwright for “Deep Azure”- a play he wrote about a black woman fighting an eating disorder during her fiance’s death as a result of violence in a black community. He’s mostly recognized as an actor, most popularly as T’Challa in Marvel’s “Black Panther”. Before his heartbreaking loss to colon cancer in late August of 2020, Boseman was nominated for an academy award for best actor and received a Golden Globe for best actor in a motion picture drama.

Oprah Winfrey- We all know Oprah! Oprah Winfrey is an actress, television producer, host, philanthropist and author. She’s made a lot of history, but to summarize, she was once the world’s only black billionaire and one of history’s greatest black philanthropists. She’s been ranked one of the most influential women in the world as well. Don’t believe me? Her endorsement of Barack Obama during the 2008 presidential race got him an estimated one million votes. Winfrey grew up in poverty in rural Mississippi and was a single mother at age 14. Throughout her adolescence, she spent significant amounts of time in Milwaukee and Tennessee. She got a job on the radio and was co-anchoring the local evening news by 19, kickstarting her career. As for her accomplishments, there’s a long list. She received a presidential medal of freedom from Obama in 2013, has honorary degrees from Duke and Harvard, holds 18 Daytime and 2 Primetime Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement award, a Tony award and is in the National Women’s Hall of Fame. She was also elected a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last year.

Carl Lewis- Are you an avid sports fan? If you’re on the track team or know your athletic trivia, you may know Carl Lewis. Lewis is a former Olympic track and field athlete, and one of the most decorated athletes of his time. The Birmingham native holds ten olympic medals, nine of which are gold. He also has ten world championship medals, of which eight are gold. Lewis’ athletic career as a sprinter and long jumper spanned from 1979 to 1996. He topped world rankings back then, and currently advocates for youth and family wellness, fitness and education. He uses his platform and status to advocate and bring attention to important issues. He founded the Carl Lewis foundation, but additionally supports charities such as Best Buddies, Wendy Marx Foundation (supports organ donor awareness), Ronald McDonald House Charities and more. He’s also a United Nations Ambassador for the Food and Agricultural Organization, a coach at University of Houston and even a musician! Lewis released an album in the late 1980s and an EP in 2015.

Jacob Lawrence– This is one of the only names you probably won’t recognize in this article. Born in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Jacob Lawrence was a well known painter and social realist from the mid 1930s. He was active in New York and Seattle, Washington and was one of the first recognized African American artists. His paintings portray the everyday lives and struggles of African Americans, using abstract and colorful styles to draw a wide audience. He was one of the few painters in his generation to grow up in a black community and be taught mostly by black artists. He was heavily influenced by the culture surrounding him. His love for art started after he began attending classes at Utopia Children’s Center, a school in New York. Art grounded Lawrence while living through the Great Depression, and inspired more creativity. He returned to Harlem and became associated with Harlem Community Art Center, which was directed by sculptor Augusta Savage.

Cory Booker- This name should definitely ring a bell! New Jersey Senator and former Newark mayor Cory Booker wants everyone to have a voice. A native to North Jersey, Booker got an undergrad from Stanford University where he played varsity football, volunteered at the campus peer counseling center and wrote for his student newspaper. He was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study at University of Oxford, and he graduated Yale Law School in 1997. As per his website, Booker has “dedicated his life to fighting for those who have been left out, left behind or left without a voice”.

These are all extremely important and impactful figures that will remain relevant in today’s society and in the future. Now that you have people to look up to, remember that you don’t have to stop here. Find resources to further educate yourself on Black History!