Celebrate Black Herstory: A Salute To Our Icons
written by Jasmine Brooks
graphic design by Jasmine Brooks
February is Black History Month, and we've got plenty of reasons to celebrate! Today, meet some of our favorite icons in Black Herstory, each renowned and respected for blazing a trail in their fields—whether they're politicians, athletes, artists or activists.
“Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It's your place in the world; it's your life. Go on and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”
On June 4, 1987, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to be admitted into the American astronaut training program. On September 12, 1992, Jemison finally flew into space with six other astronauts aboard the Endeavour on mission STS47, becoming the first African-American woman in space. During her eight days in space, she conducted experiments on weightlessness and motion sickness on the crew and on herself. In all, she spent more than 190 hours in space before returning to Earth on September 20, 1992.
Following her historic flight, Jemison noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity.
In recognition of her accomplishments, Jemison has received several awards and honorary doctorates.
“The success of every woman should be the inspiration to another. We should raise each other up. Make sure you're very courageous: be strong, be extremely kind, and above all be humble.”
Serena Williams began intensive tennis training at the age of three. She won her first major championship in 1999 and completed the career Grand Slam in 2003. Along with her record-breaking individual success, Williams has teamed with sister Venus to win a series of doubles titles. In 2017, she won her 23rd Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, defeating her older sister Venus in the Australian Open. With her 23rd win, the tennis superstar surpassed Steffi Graf's record and captured the world's No. 1 ranking in single tennis play.
Proving to be much more than just a tennis star, Serena expanded her brand into film, television, and fashion. She developed her own "Aneres" line of clothing, and in 2002 was named one of People magazine's 25 Most Intriguing People. Essence magazine later called her one of the country's 50 Most Inspiring African-Americans.
Seeking to provide educational opportunities for underprivileged youth around the world, the tennis star formed the Serena Williams Foundation and built schools for children in Africa. In 2009, Serena and Venus purchased shares of the Miami Dolphins to become the first African-American women to own part of an NFL team.
“This moment right here, me standing up here all brown with my boobs and my Thursday night of network television full of women of color, competitive women, strong women, women who own their bodies and whose lives revolve around their work instead of their men, women who are big dogs — that could only be happening right now.”
Shonda Rhimes is the first African-American woman to create and executively produce a Top 10 network series—the medical drama Grey's Anatomy. She is also the creator of its spin-off, Private Practice, the political thriller Scandal and the legal whodunit How to Get Away With Murder. Before creating several award-winning series, Rhimes penned such film screenplays as Crossroads and HBO's Introducing Dorothy Dandridge.
“It is no longer possible for various groups to live and function and struggle in isolation…While we may specifically be involved in our own particular struggles, our vision has to be that we understand how our own issues relate to the issues of others. My consciousness has grown so that when I speak and write, I make a point of discussing the need for understanding how Native Americans, Latinos, and other people of color are marginalized in this society.”
Socialist and former communist political activist and intellectual Angela Davis has addressed civil and women’s rights, poverty and peace, health care and prison reform since she first came dramatically into the public eye in 1970, when her activism in prisoners’ rights led to her arrest and trial on charges of kidnapping, conspiracy and murder. Davis’ imprisonment for over a year inspired the international “Free Angela” movement and her case became a symbol of the abusive power of the criminal justice system against minorities. Acquitted in 1972, Davis has had a long career as a popular lecturer and professor, writing and fighting for revolutionary social and political reform in the interests of the repressed.
“My mission in life is not merely to survive, but to thrive; and to do so with some passion, some compassion, some humor, and some style.”
Maya Angelou was a writer and civil rights activist, known for her 1969 memoir, "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," the first nonfiction best-seller by an African-American woman. In 1971, Angelou published the Pulitzer Prize-nominated poetry collection "Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Die." She later wrote the poem "On the Pulse of Morning"—one of her most famous works—which she recited at President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993. Angelou received several honors throughout her career, including two NAACP Image Awards in the outstanding literary work nonfiction category, in 2005 and 2009. She died on May 28, 2014.
“You see, our glorious diversity—our diversity of faiths, and colors and creeds. That is not a threat to who we are; it makes us who we are.”
Michelle Obama attended Princeton University, graduating cum laude in 1985, and went on to earn a degree from Harvard Law School in 1988. Following her graduation from Harvard, she worked at a Chicago law firm, where she met her husband, future U.S. president Barack Obama. As first lady, Obama became a role model for women as she focused her attention on current social issues, such as poverty, healthy living, and education.
Michelle is one of only three first ladies with a graduate degree. You can read her dissertation titled "Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community" here.
“It is revolutionary for any trans person to choose to be seen and visible in a world that tells us we should not exist.”
Laverne Cox is an Emmy-nominated actress who can be seen in the Netflix original series "Orange is The New Black" where she plays the ground-breaking role of trans inmate Sophia Burset.
Laverne’s work as an actress and advocate landed her on the cover of TIME Magazine as well as an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Guest Actress in a Comedy Series.” Laverne continues to break boundaries and make history with accolades including a SAG Award for “Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series,” a Critic’s Choice nomination for “Best Supporting Actress,” and a NAACP Image Awards nomination for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series.”
Laverne is also currently producing a documentary titled "Free CeCe" in order to heighten visibility and awareness for CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman who was controversially sentenced to 41 months in prison for second-degree manslaughter after allegedly defending herself against a racist and transphobic attack. The documentary will focus on McDonald’s case, her experiences while incarcerated in a men’s prison and the larger implications of her case for the transgender community.
“The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
Civil rights activist Rosa Parks refusal to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama bus spurred a city-wide boycott. Following the boycott, the city of Montgomery had no choice but to lift the law requiring segregation on public buses. Rosa Parks received many accolades during her lifetime, including the NAACP's highest award, the Spingarn Medal.
Although she had become a symbol of the Civil Rights Movement, Rosa Parks suffered hardship in the months following her arrest in Montgomery and the subsequent boycott. She lost her department store job and her husband was fired after his boss forbade him to talk about his wife or their legal case. Unable to find work, they eventually left Montgomery; the couple, along with Rosa's mother, moved to Detroit, Michigan. There, Rosa made a new life for herself, working as a secretary and receptionist in U.S. Representative John Conyer's congressional office. She also served on the board of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
In 1987, with longtime friend Elaine Eason Steele, Rosa founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development. The organization runs "Pathways to Freedom" bus tours, introducing young people to important civil rights and Underground Railroad sites throughout the country.
We salute these women today and always. Happy Black Herstory Month!