Just as a premise, I'm not a black person myself, and I'm not writing this as a way to virtue signal, and this isn't performative activism. I'm not even saying these are the absolute most influential black people in the history of the USA.
Let's get this list started.
James Baldwin(1924-1987)-Late Writer
James Baldwin called out racism in a brutally honest way-And he did it with style. His brilliant prose combined his own experience with the best — and worst — of that of the black life around him: the joy, the blues, the sermons, the spirituals and the bitter sting of discrimination. As he said in his essay The Creative Process, “a society must assume that it is stable, but the artist must know, and must let us know, that there is nothing stable under heaven.”
The work of Baldwin, a product of Harlem, New York, and a citizen of the world, consistently reflected the experience of a black man in white America. His travels to France and Switzerland only nuanced his understanding of the social conditions of his race and his country. Although written abroad, his first novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain, published in 1953, illuminated the struggle of poor, inner-city residents and drew on the passion of the pulpit. His collection of essays The Fire Next Time explosively represented black identity just as the country was coming to terms with just how much white supremacy was in its DNA. Giovanni’s Room dove straight into the taboo that was homosexuality — elevating the notion of identity through sexuality and socioeconomic status without ever mentioning race once.
A slave. A free person among slaves. A free person who must still fight for full emancipation. Every black person who has called America home has existed in one of these three states. Frederick Douglass endured them all and spoke to these unique human conditions while demanding complete black inclusion in the American experiment.
With his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, Douglass provided arguably the most influential slave narrative. Born in Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave mother and a white father, possibly his owner, Douglass escaped bondage by fleeing North. Through his vivid portrayals of brutality, the severing of familial bonds and mental torture, he documented the iniquity of the peculiar institution and disproved the Southern propaganda of the happy slave.
Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, partly due to his personal experience of having lived as chattel, but also he knew how to enrapture an audience. One observer described him as strikingly memorable. “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”
Particularly relevant today, Douglass leaves behind a blueprint for challenging racism. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House to sell them on the idea of black immigration out of the country. Douglass called Lincoln’s idea “ridiculous” and believed the president showed a “pride of race and blood” and “contempt for negroes.” Through a subsequent friendship with Douglass, Lincoln learned he had erred.
Douglass was not always successful in changing the mind of a president. At the White House in 1866, Douglass told President Andrew Johnson that “we do hope that you … will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.” Johnson continued to oppose black suffrage, yet Douglass taught everyone the small victories to be reaped by simply resisting the shackles of oppression.
Doctors stole her cells. Henrietta Lacks was an accidental pioneer of modern-day medicine; her cells are saving lives today even though she died in 1951-and "lacks" she did not.
Lacks was a 31-year-old mother of five when she was diagnosed with cervical cancer. Just months before her death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore sliced pieces of tissue from her cancerous tumor without her consent — in effect, stealing them. It was another instance of decades of medical apartheid and clinical practices that discriminated against blacks. Lacks was not a slave, but parts of her cancerous tumor represent the first human cells ever bought and sold.
Her cells, known among scientists as HeLa, were unusual in that they could rapidly reproduce and stay alive long enough to undergo multiple tests. Lacks’ cells — now worth billions of dollars — live in laboratories across the world. They played an important part in developing the polio vaccine, cloning, gene mapping and in vitro fertilization. The HeLa cell line has been used to develop drugs for treating herpes, leukemia, influenza and Parkinson’s disease. They’ve been influential in the study of cancer, lactose digestion, sexually transmitted diseases and appendicitis.
Darrell Taylor(1979-Present)-Reality Television Star
When the Season Premier of the former Music Television(MTV) Reality Show Road Rules: Campus Crawl premiered in 2002, Darrell bluntly introduced himself as a "black kid from Oakland, California". Except, at 22 years old, he was more mature than the middle-aged television stars we see these days, making him far from the "kid" he described himself. He went on to dominate that reality competition show, and win that season with ease.
Later on in 2003, he would make his debut on MTV's The Challenge on The Gauntlet season. He went on to win his first four seasons on the show, making him one of the most winningest competitors in the show's history, which is impressive, given white people dominate Reality TV. Darrell had also performed excellent in challenges, Elimination Rounds, and even the political game. He went on to win a spinoff season on Champs vs. Stars, as if it were easy.
As of right now, Darrell is competing on The Challenge: Double Agents as the oldest competitor to ever compete on a season of that show(41 years old), and is still more physically athletic than most of the 20-somethings on that show. If he wins this season, it will be his seventh Reality Show season victory.
Remember-his name isn't pronounced Darrell, it's DA-RELL.
Toni Morrison(1931-2019)-Late Writer
“You your best thing, Sethe. You are.” That penultimate line from Toni Morrison’s Beloved — her fifth novel and winner of the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for fiction succinctly explains the significance of what Morrison, born Chloe Ardelia Wofford, has contributed not only to literature but to the understanding of the history of black people in the United States.
Many writers used fiction to tell the story of our people, to reveal the physical and mental burden of half a millennium of systemic dehumanization. But it was Morrison who told you straight up – from behind a lectern at Princeton University or in her writings: Her “word-work” was not meant to “battle heroines and heroes like you have already fought and lost,” she said in her acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993. She wrote for a reader who whispered to her, “Stop thinking about saving your face. Think of our lives and tell us your particularized world. Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created.”
There are no lectures in her novels. Not even in her magnum opus, Beloved, about Sethe, a woman haunted by the child she killed instead of returning her to slavery. Sethe’s story of survival in the face of breathtaking brutality is her own. Her thirst for freedom for her children and for a future was not written to make you feel grateful for yours. Her rage and sorrow may mirror our own, but it is not ours. To read Morrison is to be reminded that each of us has our own journey. We need only crack open one of her books at any page to find the strength of fellow travelers. To be one with the last utterance in Beloved. “Me? Me?” – Raina Kelley
Sojourner Truth, an escaped slave who lost her family, her first love and children to the peculiar institution, turned her pain and Christian faith into triumph by helping others — especially women — recognize their worth.
“That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain’t I a woman? Look at me!”
That was the message that caught the attention of attendees during her spontaneous speech at the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, in May 1851. Although she is famed for that speech, it’s unlikely the words are exact: They come from a version published years later using a stereotypical Southern dialect, while Truth grew up in New York and Dutch was her first language.
Regardless, she was a prominent and frequent speaker on women’s rights and abolition. Born Isabella Baumfree in New York around 1797, she was the ninth child born into an enslaved family. She gave herself the name “Sojourner Truth” in 1843 after becoming a Methodist and soon began a life of preaching and lecturing.
Truth pursued political equality for all women and spoke against other abolitionists for not pursuing civil rights for all black men and women. As the movement advanced, so did Truth’s reputation. Her memoirs — The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave — were published in 1850 and she toured and spoke before ever-larger crowds. During the Civil War, she helped recruit black troops for the Union Army, which granted her the opportunity to speak with President Abraham Lincoln.