February is Black History Month. I’ve long noticed that very little attention is given to black figures who have greatly impacted history outside of this month, let alone black women who are nowhere close to being household names, yet definitely should be. I’ve compiled a crash course of several historical women I’ve personally been inspired by over the years who are seldom given the recognition they deserve. Needless to say, you won’t find Oprah or Beyoncé on this list; by now they’ve got a proper platform for recognition securely squared away, and rightly deserved. Maybe you’ve read about some of the women who are on this list in school before, or maybe each name will be entirely new to you and you’ll feel inspired to discover other influential women long after February draws to a close.
6). Angela Davis
If you don’t recognize her name, you might at least recognize her amazing fro. Angela Davis was a nationally prominent counterculture activist and radical in the 1960s and was known for having a close relationship with the Black Panther Party through her involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. She has been an activist and writer promoting women’s rights and racial justice while pursuing a career in philosophy and teaching at the University of Santa Cruz and San Francisco University. This short blurb barely scratches the surface of why Angela Davis is such an influential and powerful figure in our history, so check out the documentary The Black Power Mixtape to learn more about her. (Ask your parents first.)
5). Zadie Smith
We cross over the pond to learn about British realist and post-modern novelist, essayist, and short story writer Zadie Smith. She is the kind of writer you kick yourself over for not having discovered her books sooner. Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006, among so many other accolades for her writing. Her debut novel White Teeth, which was published when she was just 25 year-old, became an immediate bestseller and was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list. She is now a tenure professor at NYU and has written a few other books that have all been critically praised. And she’s only 38! Amazing.
4). Mae Jemison
Have you ever even heard of Mae Jemison? Don’t worry–it took me a while to discover her, too. I’m glad I did because she’s incredible. Jemison is the first black woman to go into space making her one of the most inspirational and adventurous women to change history. Many of us as kids dream of being an astronaut one day, floating around in a zero gravity chamber, and gazing back at planet Earth from lightyears away. Mae Jemison actually got to do this. Imagine the stories she has from her week-long space journey! She’s also a physician who volunteered with the Peace Corps before later joining NASA. Since then, she’s founded the Dorothy Jemison Foundation for Excellence, which brings science education to children. I’m floored…
3). Grace Jones
One of my ultimate favorites on this list is cultural icon Grace Jones. A model, singer, and actress, she broke onto the fashion scene in the 70s and was so ahead of her time that she quickly became the muse for top designers and photographers like Yves Saint Laurent, Claude Montana, and Helmut Newton. She later took over the New Wave music scene and also began appearing in films. She is still a huge influence in the fashion world due to her unique and unprecedented ways of expressing sexuality and style. She was known for her androgynous looks and turned conventional ideas of beauty and sex appeal on their head. To this day, we still do not have many women like her who have influenced style and fashion in such a major way.
2). Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This woman is an unstoppable force. I first discovered Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie when I came upon her TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, which “describes how she found her authentic cultural voice and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” To my knowledge, her presence simply exploded after this TED Talk and she was everywhere. And I don’t just mean on stuffy radio shows and pretentious literary news spots either… A sample from her TEDx message titled “We Should All Be Feminists” can even be heard in Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album (so I lied, Beyoncé’s name definitely made a cameo on this list). TED’s blog describes what can be heard in Beyoncé song “***Flawless”:
The song starts out with a sample of Ed McMahon of Star Search, announcing Beyoncé and her friends in the female rap group Girl’s Tyme back in 1992. From there, Beyonce croons — with strong language that will likely be objectionable to some — on the pressure women feel to be perfect and to think of marriage as the main goal of their life. Adichie’s words come in at 1:24, and form a beautiful second verse of the song:
“We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise you will threaten the man.’ Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support. But why do we teach to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors – not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”
Chimamanda Adichie is absolutely someone to keep your eye on, for I easily foresee her contemporary work continuing to hugely impact our social climate.
1). Audre Lorde
I learned about Audre Lorde, not surprisingly, in a women’s studies course at university. Sadly enough, I don’t think her name comes up too much unless you’re a student enrolled in such a class, but hopefully that will someday change. She is on my favorites list because she was brilliant novelist and essayist, but mostly because she was an incredibly influential poet in my life. She was daring and provocative and feared no one. Lorde wrote what was in her heart, not what publishers deemed appropriate for publishing based on dated social conventions. She published her first poem while still in high school in Seventeen magazine after being rejected by her own school paper which said her poetry was “much too romantic.” Lorde shattered cultural expectations and was unapologetically outspoken about racism, feminism, homophobia and her identity as a lesbian. She called herself a warrior, and I call her a total BAD-A**. I highly recommend The Collected Poems of Audre Lorde and her autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. (Again, ask your parents first!) These women are just a few of the hundreds or even thousands that could have made this list. Are you learning about any inspirational black women in school this month? Who would you have added to this list? Thank for hanging out with me on the blog-o-sphere today. Lisi will return next week with her usual Wednesday blah-g post! xx, Alisha, Office Elf