Lifestyle and Culture are kicking off our contribution to Black History Month with a selection of profiles of some of the most influential people of colour, past and present, who have had a substantial effect on the world and the way in which we view it.
Arguably the most influential literary voice of the civil rights movements, essayist and novelist James Baldwin’s works explored themes of race, class, sexuality and acceptance. Known for his poignant, concise, and unflinching writing style, the majority of Baldwin’s work focused on the Black experience, articulating a lot of the anger and disenfranchisement felt by Black Americans at the time. An openly gay man, a number of Baldwin’s novels centred on homosexual and bisexual characters, which was somewhat controversial at the time. Several of Baldwin’s essays tackled homophobia in a direct manner, and, although he was writing a lot of this before the gay liberation movement, Baldwin’s stance on these matters made him a prominent figure in the movement when it did come about. He spent a large portion, and the final years, of his life living in France and came under criticism from Black activists, who stated that he no longer had the authority to write on matters of Black Americans if he was not himself living in America, being too far removed from his readers and the Black American experience itself. He was a close friend of revolutionary leaders Malcolm X, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King Jr., and he was exploring these relationships in the manuscript for his book Remember This House. Baldwin died from stomach cancer in 1987 before he could finish the book, but the manuscript was taken and from it was born the stunning 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which features many interviews and speeches given by Baldwin.
Davis was one of, if not the most, prominent and influential female voices of the Black liberation movement. A revolutionary and a communist, she was also involved with the Black Party for a time during the movement. A philosophy major in college, Davis was one of three black students in her class. Her activism brought her to the forefront of the movement, also attracting investigation by the FBI, and an effort by Ronal Reagan to permanently ban her from teaching. All of this was in vain, however, as Davis is still teaching to this day at UC Santa Cruz. With a focus on a multitude of subjects from Marxism to African-American studies, Davis still publishes work, with her recent work covering the modern struggles of the Ferguson Movement and the Palestinian struggle. She has stated that her socialist stance has furthered her understanding of race relations. Davis is an abolitionist, staunchly opposed to the United States prison complex, believing that the modern US prison system is akin to slavery. She speaks on the matter in Ava DuVernay’s ground-breaking 2013 documentary, ’13th’.
Huey P Newton
One cannot mention the Black struggle without mentioning The Black Panther Party and, in turn, its co-founder Huey P. Newton in the same breath. In 1966, Newton founded the party with Bobby Searle. Based in Marxist-Leninist thought, the party set out 10 commandments and aims for Black liberation, mainly freedom, reparations, and the power to determine the destiny of the Black community. The party was at the forefront of the Black liberation movement, setting up numerous social schemes and providing many with financial and legal aid. Unable to read until he taught himself in his late teens, Newton became well-versed in the works of many poets, philosophers and revolutionaries that his older brother told him about by memorising a lot of their works from hearing about them. His autobiography, Revolutionary Suicide, paints a picture of the Black experience under segregation. The section on Newton’s trial speaks volumes of the tribulations faced by Black people of the day at the hands of the American legal system, but the similarities that are seen between the legal system of 1967 and 2018 are unavoidable.
Shan Boodram is a multiplatform activist and sex educator with over 25 million YouTube views on topics including hookups, bad sex, anatomy, homosexuality, virginity, orgasms and relationships to name but a few. She talks about all the things ‘you shouldn’t talk about’, giving young people accurate and informative information in a comfortable relaxed environment, removing the taboo and controversy over talking about all things sex. Boody gained her undergraduate degree in print journalism and as a Canadian best-selling author with her book, LAID: Young People’s Experiences with Sex in an Easy-Access Culture, she undeniably deserves more recognition for her efforts to encourage discussion, removing the stigmas of sexuality today. As an ambassador for AIDS Healthcare Foundation, American Sexual Health Association and Womens Health.gov, she is smashing every metaphorical barrier facing young people of all walks of life. However, her online chit chats are not solely exclusive to sex; they include topics from colourism within Black Panther to taming relentless afro hair and embracing cultural differences. Boody really has changed the lives of her 400,000 subscriber base demonstrated by the regular feedback on her work including “I always feel like superwoman after watching your videos!” and “Thank you! I have become so much more confident and sensual… I am loving it! Keep doing what you’re doing!” (anonymous). Comments like these highlight her very real influence and impact on the lives of thousands – to create a more open, communicative and confident society. She’s definitely someone you should check out!
Charlie Green and Yasmin Hewitt
Images: Biography.com, Steve Schapiro, Verso, NY Historical Society, Oudiad