Hundreds of African-American leaders and influential figures have fought for the freedom and basic rights of their people. They have stood strong and resilient against unfathomable injustices, elevating not only themselves but humanity as a whole in the process.
Throughout history, there are always those among us whose light makes everyone else's glow a bit brighter. Today, we present 10 of the most luminous visionaries and megawatt geniuses to have ever lit up African-American history.
Amanda Gorman: The Youngest Inaugural Poet In U.S. History | 1998-Present
Amanda Gorman is a 2020 Harvard Graduate and the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate of the United States. She is best known for her flawless recitation of her poem, "The Hill We Climb," at the 2021 Inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr., handpicked by Biden himself and the youngest ever to be chosen as such.
She already has one poetry collection in print with Penmanship Books, The One For Whom Food Is Not Enough (2015), and another to come bearing the same title as her aforementioned poem, in 2021 with Viking. She is also the founder of One Pen One Page, an organization that provides creative writing programs to youth in underserved communities.
Chris Rock: Comedian, Actor, and Filmmaker | 1965-Present
He's a 4-time Emmy and 3-time Grammy-winning screen, stage, and audio artist with numerous claims to fame. He's had five HBO and two highly successful Netflix standup comedy specials, the latter two for which he was paid $40 million, each.
He's starred in animated and live-action blockbuster films alike, such as New Jack City, The Longest Yard, Grown-Ups, Death at a Funeral, and Madagascar as the voice of Marty the Zebra. He's simultaneously well-known for his writer/director roles in films Head of State, I Think I Love My Wife, Top Five, and his documentary Good Hair. He's perhaps best known for his time as a Saturday Night Live cast member back in the early '90s and has been asked to guest host the show three times since, most recently in 2020.
Danai Gurira: Actress and Playwright | 1978-Present
Best known for her dynamic cinematic performances as Okoye in Marvel's Black Panther and The Avengers films, and her starring role as Michonne in The Walking Dead television series, Gurira is a Zimbabwean-American tour de force. Having earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Acting from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, it comes as no surprise that she's also an accomplished playwright.
She's been commissioned by Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, Playwrights Horizons in New York City, Yale Repertory Theatre in Connecticut, and the Royal Court Theatre in Liverpool, overseas. She has both written and starred in Off-Broadway and Broadway plays such as In The Continuum, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Convert, Familiar, and Eclipsed. Danai was aptly named a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador in 2018 at the Global Citizen Festival in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Cornel West: Professor, Author, and Activist | 1953-Present
Dr. West has been pushing the envelope since his year-early graduation from Harvard. He proceeded to obtain his M.A. and Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he holds the title of Professor Emeritus. He has also taught at other prestigious institutions such as Harvard itself, Yale University, and the University of Paris. He has written and edited 33 books and is best known for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
In the process of pursuing his lifelong goal of keeping the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. alive, he has produced three spoken word albums with numerous multi-platinum, award-winning artists and been invited onto over 25 other film and television productions such as The Bill Maher Show and Democracy Now. His most recent endeavor is his book, Black Prophetic Fire, in which he examines 19th and 20th-century African-American leaders and their legacies.
Erykah Badu: The Queen of Neo-soul Music | 1971-Present
Hailing from Dallas, Texas, and rising under her godmother and uncle's tutelage, Erykah Badu catapulted to fame after being discovered opening for R&B artist D'Angelo in 1994. The genius we know as the Godmother of Soul (The New Yorker, 2016) dropped her debut album, Baduizm, in early 1997. It garnered instant success and earned her first four Grammy nominations and two wins, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Album. Baduizm was certified three times platinum by the R.I.A.A.
The albums that followed, Live (1997), Mama's Gun (2000), Worldwide Underground (2003), New Amerykah Part One (2008), and New Amerykah Part Two (2010), would lead her to 19 total Grammy nominations and 4 wins. She has made music with the likes of Pharrell, Common, Jill Scott, The Roots, Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang Clan, Outkast, and so many more.
First Lady Michelle L. R. Obama (Former) | 1964-Present
From strong beginnings in Chicago, Illinois, Michelle LaVaughn Robinson eventually added "Obama" after marrying Barack, a then-summer associate she was assigned to manage at the Sidley Austin firm where she was a successful lawyer. Before this, however, the "Forever First Lady" graduated with her Bachelor's from Princeton University and her Juris Doctor Degree from Harvard Law School.
After marrying Barack in 1992, Michelle held high positions of public service at Chicago's City Hall, the Chicago AmeriCorps' Public Allies program, and the University of Chicago Medical Center. During this time, daughters Malia and Sasha were born, and Michelle went on to become the first African-American First Lady of the United States. Stride for stride with the President, she spearheaded the "Let's Move!" and "Reach Higher" Initiatives. She used her carefully curated platform to empower, inspire, and uplift children, girls, and women all over the country and world.
Gabrielle "Gabby" Douglas: Olympic and World Champion Gymnast | 1995-Present
Exploding onto the Olympic gymnastics scene at 17, Gabrielle Douglas was a U.S. Olympic Team Gold Medalist and an All-Around Olympic Gold Medal-winning gymnast at the 2012 London Games. Her gymnastics training began seriously at the age of 8, with her being crowned as Virginia's State Gymnastics Champion at only 9 years old in 2004. From there, Gabby made an ambitious and career-investing move across the country all by herself, eventually landing in Iowa as a 14-year-old training with the top coaches in the world.
Post-major 2012 Olympic victory and amongst a slew of other National Championship Team selections and wins, Gabby relocated to Ohio, where she trains with her coaches. She returned to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2016, where she was once again a U.S. Olympic Team Gold Medal-winning gymnast.
Officer Eugene Goodman: Acting Deputy Senate Sergeant-at-Arms | 1980-Present
On January 6th, 2021, Officer Eugene Goodman tried for 85 seconds, alone and unsuccessfully, to hold back a violent insurrection of angry separatists that had breached the Nation's Capitol. He then, noticing an entrance to Senate chambers that had not been secured, decided to use his body as bait to lure the riotous mob backward up two flights of stairs, away from the lawmakers whose lives hung in the balance.
HuffPost reporter Igor Bobic posted a since-viral video lauding him for his bravery, and the story exploded onto The New York Times, The Washington Post, B.B.C., and many other outlets. On January 20th, 2021, at President Biden's Inaugural Celebration, Officer Goodman was promoted to Acting Deputy Senate Sergeant-at-Arms and personally escorted Vice President Kamala D. Harris to the platform to be sworn in. He has been nominated for the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his actions.
President Barack H. Obama II (Former) | 1961-Present
Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawaii, until leaving for Occidental College in Los Angeles, Barack transferred to and graduated from Columbia University in New York. He gravitated to the South Side of Chicago in 1983 and became a pivotal community organizer working hard to improve housing conditions and create jobs in an impoverished community.
He attended Harvard Law in 1988 to prestige, becoming the first African-American President of the Harvard Law Review and returning to Chicago to practice civil rights law. There, he met his wife, Michelle L. R. Obama. Along with the birth of daughters Malia and Sasha, from 1998-2008, he was elected an Illinois, then a U.S. senator, then the first African-American President of the United States. He was then re-elected, serving two consecutive terms. During his time in office, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, enacted The Affordable Care Act and the Paris Climate Agreement, and made enormous strides in stimulating the economy.
Vice President Kamala D. Harris (Current) | 1964-Present
The first woman, Black-American, South Asian-American, and the current sitting Vice President of the United States, Kamala Devi Harris, hails from similarly outstanding origins. Harris' parents emigrated from India and Jamaica to Oakland, California, where she was born. Her mother, who primarily raised her and her siblings, received her doctorate the same year Vice President Harris arrived.
In like fashion, the Vice President graduated from Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of Law. Her career leading up to her swearing-in as Vice President of the U.S. is seasoned with significant accomplishments such as being elected the District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003, California's Attorney General in 2010, and U.S. Senator in 2017. She accepted the Vice-Presidential Nomination of President Joseph R. Biden in August of 2020 and was sworn into office as Madame Vice President on January 20th, 2021.
This February, we pay homage to these titans of history, and to the hundreds of other black leaders and other significant historical figures we don’t have time to list. Their accomplishments and achievements have shaped the world as we know it today, and their influence will continue to shape it for years to come.
These ten giants, all on their own, continue to prove to anyone who's somehow still behind on the news: African-Americans are brilliant, resilient, necessary, and unapologetically beautiful in every way.