Black History Month is a time to educate ourselves on the contributions of Black individuals that have historically gone unknown, overshadowed and/or undervalued. It’s no secret that a large portion of popular American culture we enjoy today was influenced by African Americans, from music and literature to comedy and scientific achievement. Frankly, there are thousands and thousands of Black figures that should be acknowledged and appreciated, but we really don’t have that much space on this page. Instead, here are 10 influential Black figures that everyone should know. Though we only listed 10 here, we encourage everyone to do their own research on the countless contributions made by African Americans this Black History Month.
Malcolm X: One of the most influential revolutionaries in U.S. history, Malcolm X was a Black nationalist, practicing Muslim and human rights leader who advocated for racial equality during the 1960s. He challenged the conventional, nonviolent nature of the Civil Rights Movement, believing that Black folks have the right to defend themselves against systemic oppression “by any means necessary.”
bell hooks: Gloria Jean Watkins, who publicly goes by the name bell hooks, is an American writer, academic and feminist theorist. Her writing addresses the intersection between race, gender and capitalism and its role in upholding systems of oppression.
Marsha P. Johnson: She’s fierce, she’s brave, she’s radical: Johnson was a transgender LGBTQ activist and artist who fought for gay liberation. She is most known for instigating the Stonewall uprising, a pivotal moment in queer American history.
Angela Davis: If you search up “badass” on Google, Davis’ name would probably pop up. An activist, scholar and public intellectual, Davis advocates for gender equality, prison reform and cross-racial solidarity. She was also involved in the U.S. Communist Party and the Black Panther Party.
Laverne Cox: Known for her role as hairstylist Sophia Burset in the hit Netflix series “Orange Is the New Black,” Cox is an actress and advocate for the LGBTQ community. She is the first openly transgender woman to be nominated for an Emmy.
Jean-Michel Basquiat: Creative, ingenious, artistic, Basquiat pushed the boundaries of graffiti and street art culture. His work, comprising colorful imagery and complex shapes, influenced modern-day fashion, hip-hop and contemporary art.
Jay-Z: Hov, Jigga, Jay-Z, the infamous Shawn Carter changed the music industry through his cadence and lyrical prowess. His influence reaches far past music, however, as he brings light to important racial issues and shows continual support to the African American community through his production of Trayvon Martin’s “Rest in Power” and latest album, “4:44.”
Maya Angelou: Receiving multiple literary awards including NAACP Image Awards, renowned author and civil rights activist Angelou influenced the literary world. Her 1969 memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” made literary history as the first nonfiction bestseller by an African American woman.
Dave Chappelle: One of the most hilarious entertainers of the 21st century, Chappelle became widely known for his stand-up and social commentary. Retiring early at the peak of his career, Chappelle’s legacy is known throughout the entertainment industry and he remains one of the most respected comedians of all time.
Mae C. Jemison: Making history as the first African American woman to be admitted into NASA’s astronaut training program, Jemison inspired a young black generation to become anything they can dream of. Her contribution to science earned her numerous awards and accolades, cementing her legacy in the history books.