An Xennial's Black Female Role Models
This post is part two of a three-part series where three generations of women reveal Black women who have inspired them throughout the years. Discover a Millennial's and Boomer's heroes in part one and part three.
I vividly recall being in middle school and having to present a Black history report to the class. I sat patiently through the onslaught of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, and Madame CJ Walker autobiographies before being called up to speak. I was so excited to share my idea of a powerful Black icon and a living legend. Grammy winner, actress, and author, the incomparable Tina Turner — well, that’s how I pictured her anyway. I delivered what I felt was the best presentation of the day — heck, the entire week — so you could imagine my surprise when I received a C on my report.
Let’s be clear — I went above and beyond for this presentation. My mom went to Blockbuster and purchased a life-size cutout from the What’s Love Got to Do With It movie premiere as a prop. I brought my A-game. So, what happened?
I sat patiently waiting, the anger building inside me as I saw the other scores passed out. Finally, the bell rang, and I could discuss my dismay. I walked swiftly towards my teacher, the words swelling up in my throat with every step, until finally, I was there. I paused as I heard my mother’s voice in my head say, “You catch more flies with honey than you do vinegar.” So I took a deep breath to calm my thought process, and I asked my teacher, “Why didn’t I get a higher score?”
The response is one that I have debated with others for years since. My teacher said, “Celebrities aren’t a part of ‘real’ Black history. Politicians, judges, civil rights activists — these are the people who fight for us and inspire Black excellence.” I was taken aback. The puzzled look on my face said more than I could. I walked away thinking, “How could one person determine what was inspirational to me and my Blackness?”
It’s been 23 years since then, and every Black History Month, I remember that day. This year, this month, I’m ready to bring my A-game again.
Here’s a small list of powerful and amazing Black women who have inspired me throughout my life. No matter the industry, these women broke barriers, stood in the face of adversity, and are pioneers in their own way. Some are well-known, some are not, and ironically only one singer/celebrity made my list. So, I will quickly add — Taraji P. Henson, Viola Davis, and Aretha Franklin here — just to even the score. You can Google them later.
Copeland is an American ballet dancer for American Ballet Theatre, one of the three leading classical ballet companies in the United States. On June 30, 2015, Copeland became the first African American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in ABT's 75-year history.
While working as a chef at Kumiko and Kikkō, Mariya Russell was the first Black woman awarded a Michelin star and to lead a Michelin-star kitchen. She received the high honor in September 2019, and her work contributed to Kumiko winning the Best New Restaurant Award from Food & Wine Magazine in 2019.
3Shirley Anita Chisholm
American politician, educator, and author, Shirley Ania Chisholm, helped pave the way for people of color in politics. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress. She was also the first woman and African American to pursue a U.S. presidential nomination from one of the two major political parties.
4Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Former slave Mary Bowser operated as a spy for the Union while working as a servant for Confederate President Jefferson Davis in Richmond at the Confederate White House.
Despite living during a time when music in America was divided into two categories — popular music and race music — iconic singer Ella Fitzgerald still managed to become the first Black artist to win a Grammy at its inaugural show in 1958. Fitzgerald went on to win 13 Grammy awards, and she received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1967.
Baker was born into slavery near Savannah, Georgia, in 1848. Despite Georgia's harsh laws against the formal education of African Americans, she attended two secret schools taught by Black women and was the first Black teacher to teach openly in a school for former slaves.
7Philippa of Hainault
Born in 1310, Philippa of Hainault was the first Black Queen of England. She was of Black Moorish ancestry, born in Valenciennes in the county of Hainaut in the Low Countries of northern France. Her parents were William I, Count of Hainaut, and Joan of Valois, Countess of Hainaut. She was also the granddaughter of Philip III of France. Philippa was one of eight children and the second of five daughters and became the wife of King Edward III.
8Georgia Ann Robinson
Robinson was the first African American woman to be appointed police officer at the Los Angeles Police Department in 1916; she was also one of the first Black policewomen to be hired in the country.
9Mae Carol Jemison
American engineer, physician, and former NASA astronaut, Mae Jemison, was the first African American woman to travel to space. She served as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Endeavour.