Today, on February 28th, 2021, is the final day of Black History Month in the United States of America.
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 can't possibly claim these to be the absolute most influential black people in the USA, because as a non-black, I can't possibly fully understand the oppression they have faced(as well as other racial minority groups).
Let's finish out this series, but I want to make one more point. After every part of this take, I have people writing in the comments about why I excluded a specific person, and so on. There are only 28 days in February this year, and that means I'm picking one influential black person for every day of the month, making exactly 28 different people. While there have been possibly thousands of influential blacks in the history of the USA, I can only pick 28. I tried to pick a wide variety, so please, appreciate it, or shut up. Thanks!
Eight short years. That’s how long it took Jean-Michel Basquiat to secure his legacy as an art world prodigy. He died at the age of 27 years old from a heroin overdose, leaving behind paintings, drawings and notebooks, many of which explored themes of counterculture American punk, the urban plight of the African diaspora, improvisational jazz music and the vagaries of fame during the Ronald Reagan-era 1980s.
Born to a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat dropped out of high school and cut his artistic chops as a graffiti artist in Soho and Manhattan, New York’s Lower East Side. He had his first important gallery show in 1980 and soon befriended the pop in pop art stars Andy Warhol and Keith Haring. Basquiat was handsome, fashionable and famously eccentric. He produced vibrant and emotional canvases with a kind of refined cool reminiscent of improvisational jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.
Dr. Charles Drew(1904-1950)-Physician
At first glance, it surprises people that the man was viewed as a black man, but he was.
The blood bank is something we take for granted now, but it wasn’t always so. As a researcher and surgeon, Dr. Charles Drew revolutionized the understanding of plasma, the liquid portion of blood without cells. Plasma lasts much longer than whole blood, making it possible to be “banked” for long periods of time.
As a young man, Drew was an exceptional athlete, starring in football, baseball, basketball and track and field at Washington, District of Columbia's(D.C.'s), Dunbar High School. He was an All-American halfback at Amherst College in Massachusetts and captain of the track team. But he couldn’t afford medical school in the United States and attended McGill University in Montreal. He later moved back to the United States and taught at Howard University’s medical school.
After becoming the first African-American to earn Doctorate Degree from Columbia University in 1940, Drew was the world’s leading authority on blood transfusions and storage, just as the United States and Great Britain were becoming deeply involved in World War II. His research established protocols on how blood should be collected and refrigerated, how donors should be recruited and screened, and training methods for people who would collect and test blood.
As medical director of the American Red Cross National Blood Donor Service, Drew led the collection of tens of thousands of pints of blood for U.S. troops. Some historians say his work might have saved the world from Nazism, since battlefield blood storage and transfusions didn’t exist before he was asked to manage two of the largest blood banks during the war.
Even so, the U.S. military ruled that the blood of African-Americans would be segregated and not used on white troops, although blood has no racial characteristics. Outraged, Drew resigned from the Red Cross and returned to Howard as a professor and head of surgery at Freedman’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he trained a generation of black physicians.
He died in 1950 at the age of 45 in a car accident in Burlington, North Carolina, while returning from a clinic at Tuskegee Institute in 1950.
Harriet Tubman, the influential “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, is the first African-American woman to appear on U.S. currency when her likeness appears on the $20 bill beginning in 2020. She led hundreds of slaves out of the South to freedom and each journey and every person mattered. “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t,” she said. “I never ran a train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
Born into slavery, she endured physical violence nearly every day in her early years. In one such incident, Tubman encountered a slave who left the fields without permission. When she refused to restrain the runaway, the overseer hurled a two-pound weight at her, striking her in the head. The episode left lifelong episodes of headaches and seizures.
Tubman escaped from slavery in 1849, using the Underground Railroad to make the 90-mile trip from Maryland to Philadelphia. But her individual safety wasn’t enough. Hearing that her niece and her children were going to be sold, she went back to the South and led them on the path to Philadelphia. Soon she came for her siblings. Then for her parents. After passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, which dictated that slaves who escaped to the North could be recaptured and returned to slavery, Tubman changed her route to end in Canada, a country where slavery was outlawed. Even though there was a bounty for her capture, she made at least 19 trips.
I don't think I need to explain more about Harriet Tubman. She's one of the most popular African-American figures in USA History, and she still has a major influence in the country to this day.
Kelly Nicole(1999-Present)-Fashion Model/Waitress/Social Media Influencer/A little bit of everything
At just 21 years old, Kelly has quite a bit going on in her life.
She's a fashion model who inspires all of the curvy women in the world, as well as a waitress at a busy restaurant. She's also a student at a local college, she helps raise her nieces, and nephews, and on top of all that, she's trying to break the music scene. She's the typical jack-of-all-trades.
There isn't much more to write about Kelly, because at just the age of 21, she's just now starting to thrive. However, be on the lookout-she may be another historical figure someday.
Jay-Z(1969-Present)-Hip-Hop Artist and Entrepreneur
If hip-hop had a Mount Rushmore, there are three men whose faces would be chiseled in granite: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Jay Z. Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac were both killed in their mid-20s. Jay Z is now 51 years old. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to be the best, but that’s what he became.
Shawn Corey Carter grew up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York, where his mother, Gloria Carter, remembers he’d be in the kitchen of their apartment “beating on the table and rapping into the wee hours of the morning” until she bought him his first boom box. But he’s never been an artist, he says — always just a hustler. He never graduated from high school and sold crack cocaine until he arrived as Jay Z with his 1996 debut album, Reasonable Doubt.
If Jay Z is the greatest, it’s not just because the only others in his league are ghosts. It’s because when it looked like hip-hop itself was dead, Jay Z brought it back to life. His 13 Billboard No. 1 albums are the most by any solo artist in history. And they’re sprinkled with timeless tracks, from 2004’s “99 Problems,” a look at what it’s like to drive while black in America, to 2009’s “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune),” which single-handedly demolished a wave of music, to “N—-s in Paris,” one of the hottest party records in the last decade.
And as he climbed the charts, Jay Z also became an influential businessman with an estimated net worth of $610 million. He is an owner of Tidal, a streaming music service. He co-founded Roc-A-Fella Records, served as president of Def Jam Records, founded entertainment company Roc Nation, and became part-owner of the Brooklyn Nets before giving up his stake in the NBA franchise to found his own sports agency, Roc Nation Sports.
Barack Hussein Obama(1961-Present)-44th President of the United States of America
Barack Hussein Obama’s stride into history has been as confident as it has been unlikely. In the 2008, and 2012 Presidential Elections, I voted for Ralph Nader, and Gary Johnson respectively. I didn't support Obama, and I never truthfully approved of his presidency. With that being said, it would be silly not to recognize the first black president in the USA as an influential black person in USA History, even if he was "just mixed" as some people put it.
He announced his candidacy for president on Feb. 10, 2007, a black first-term U.S. senator who previously had served just seven years in the Illinois Senate. He had little support from established politicians, and many black voters did not even know who he was. But his campaign became a movement. His soaring speeches promising hope and change inspired millions. Less than two years later, a record crowd gathered on the National Mall to witness what was once unthinkable: the inauguration of the first black president of the United States.
It was a singular achievement by a man with a singular history. He was born in Hawaii to a Kenyan father and white mother. As a child, he lived in Indonesia before returning to Hawaii to be raised by his white grandparents.
As a teenager, he began to discover his black identity largely through basketball. He admired and emulated the loose-limbed swagger of the guys who played the game. He saw black as cool, and embraced the virtues of blackness while managing to sidestep much of its complicated baggage.
All along, he behaved like a man unconstrained by stereotype. He married a black woman from Chicago’s South Side, gushing in one of his books not only about her beauty and intelligence but also the warmth and strength of her family. Asked to name television shows he liked, he mentioned the gritty urban drama The Wire, adding that his favorite character was Omar, a gay stickup man.
Through two terms as president, he tamed the Great Recession, rescued the struggling auto industry and enacted a health care reform law that had conflicted Democrats for decades. He was disciplined and deliberative, even-tempered and level-headed. He was often described as the smartest person in the room, which everyone knew he knew.
Overall, Obama governed as a moderate. Republicans were annoyed when he punctuated his positions by saying “elections have consequences.” Hypocritical Democrats grumbled when he answered their pleas for programs targeting black problems by saying, “I’m not the president of black America. I’m the president of the United States of America.”
Obama remained confident even after voters chose as his successor, Donald Trump, a man who in both style and substance is his polar opposite. Speaking to the nation in his farewell address, Obama reprised the slogan that accompanied his history-making rise to the White House.
Oprah Winfrey(1954-Present)-Media Giant
Who hasn't been inspired by Oprah Winfrey?
Oprah is, after all, every single thing. First African-American female billionaire. Academy Award-winner for her international humanitarian efforts. Host of one of the most celebrated and longest-running daytime talk shows in television history. Owner of a self-named 24-hour cable network. Broadway musical producer and screen actress. Book publishing and literary guru with a best-selling Midas touch. Star maker of countless television hosts and self-help gurus (Dr. Phil, Iyanla Vanzant, Dr. Oz, Suze Orman, Nate Berkus, Rachael Ray, Bob Greene and Gayle King). Cover girl on every single issue of O, The Oprah Magazine since its debut in April 2000 (making her one of the most influential cover models in publishing history).
Had Oprah gotten into the TV business 10 years earlier, the Mississippi-born philanthropist wouldn’t have been let anywhere near the throne: She wasn’t white, blonde, thin or male. When The Oprah Winfrey Show went into national syndication in 1986, she yanked Phil Donahue’s self-help ball and turned TV into something new.
Broadcasting chops aside, Oprah’s secret superhero talent turned out to be getting people to really, really like her. Women are used to keeping secrets, and Oprah had a laundry list of her own. She was so potently self-confessional that owning your shame suddenly felt modern and chic. Savvy marketers and A-list sponsors were quick to buy in early on the Winfrey-approved gravy train. Who can forget the scenes of screaming studio audience members who got new Pontiac G6s, free trips to Australia or boatloads of holiday gifts? She was the first mass media TV star to commercialize postracial wellness, spirituality and best-life striving. But Oprah didn’t just lead black people; she became Pied Piper of “Best You” agitprop.
With success comes an inevitable cascade of alteration, most of which Oprah manages to side-eye. Her generosity, especially for educational endeavors, is legendary. Mama Oprah, who is famously never-married and childless, funded a girls-only private school in South Africa and tuition gifts to more than 415 Morehouse College students.
Martin Luther King Jr.(1929-1968)-Civil Rights Activist
Jerry Rice in the National Football League(NFL). Babe Ruth in Major League Baseball(MLB). Wayne Gretzky in the National Hockey League(NHL). I'll let you all fight about the LeBron James versus Michael Jordan argument in the National Basketball Association(NBA). Serena Williams in Women's Tennis, Jack Nicholas(and, er...maybe Tiger Woods) in the Professional Golf Association(PGA). Tom Hanks the Hollywood Actor. You get the jist-all of these are often considered(and argued upon) as the "Greatest Of All Time"(GOAT) in their respective career fields.
So, is it safe to coin Martin Luther King Jr. as the most influence black person in the USA History, making him the "GOAT" of Black History Month? I think it's arguable. After all, he's the only one on my 28 person list to have a national holiday named after him, and his legacy lives on to this day.
Pick up a pencil. And write me a letter. Show the racial and economic apartheid facing most racial minority groups in the USA. Rouse the fearful souls who feel certain it cannot be overcome. Dismiss the ones who say it shouldn’t be done. Calm the ones who seek to kill to see it done. Set aside the certainty that your life is in mortal peril — when has it not been?
Of course we are speaking of Martin Luther King Jr., and the challenge is Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Why is it so hard now to see the blood and sweat behind the monument King has become? Perhaps peaceful resistance feels so passive in these pugnacious times? But when was it ever not so? Perhaps his eloquence lulls the senses with its beauty. Perhaps martyrdom puts his exhortations out of reach of the normal person.
Certainly, he was a man of incredible achievement: seminal leader of the civil rights movement, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a key figure in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, the Montgomery bus boycott, the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. And after his assassination, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a federal holiday, a monument in Washington, D.C., a coloring book page on every refrigerator in every house with a child under 6 during Black History Month.
The key to that achievement? Here’s a hint from the man himself:
“We decided to set our direct-action program around the Easter season, realizing that, with exception of Christmas, this was the largest shopping period of the year. Knowing that a strong economic withdrawal program would be the by-product of direct action, we felt that this was the best time to bring pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.”
Note the precision of the planning, the cunning in the details: King was waging a war. This was not about turning the other cheek. He would not answer violence with violence but would fight until he died. It is hard now to see the movement behind the movement. What we glaze over as a glorious fight for our inalienable rights was for him to put “pressure on the merchants for the needed changes.”
However, the greatest part about MLK Jr. isn't just the fact he was an influential black man, he was also someone who recognized that the economic impact, and wealth disparity affected everyone, not just specific groups of people. He wanted peace.