As Black History Month draws to a close, we asked our members which inspirational Black figures from history have inspired them, here is what they had to say.
Hauwa Shehu: Shirley Chisolm is inspirational
There are many inspirational Black figures that inspire me every day. Many of those whose stories uplift and empower me include women and Muslims, as I can identify with their struggles and stories as a proud Black Muslim woman myself. It is therefore not easy for me to spotlight just one. Still, I will mention Shirley Chisolm – the first African-American woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, and the first Black person to run for President of the USA in 1972. I admire her fearlessness and her ambition. One of my favourite quotes from her is “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” She was ahead of her time and didn’t let a broken system, riddled with racial and gender inequality and discrimination, prevent her from pursuing what was right. It is a strong lesson for us all today, especially for minorities as a whole and Black women in particular. To remember we have a voice, and we do not need to wait to be heard. In the pursuit of justice, it is important to be assertive and own your truth. Long gone are the days where we wait to be invited – we are here.
Conrad Gayle: Kirk Franklin inspires me through his music
My role model is Kirk Franklin, who is a well-known gospel artist. Even though he has won various awards including 16 Grammy awards, sold millions of his albums and probably the best-known gospel artist of our time for the last 25 years. He came from very humble beginnings, abandoned as a baby by his mother and raised by his aunt. She raised money by selling aluminium cans to pay for his piano lesson.
I have him as my role model, because although he started from humble beginnings, he did not hold back from pursuing his dreams. Being the first in my family excluding my father to ever go to university (my father studied in later life while my mother’s income as a caterer had to raise three of us in a 4th floor flat in Peckham, London), Kirk Franklin inspired me through his music and got me interested in singing and being the best I can be through it. I have been told I look like him on several occasions.
André Nwadikwa-Jonathan: Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon campaigns for a fairer society
Doreen Lawrence is an activist, a parliamentarian, and above all else, a mother. After her son, Stephen, was tragically murdered in a racist stabbing now seared into the Black British consciousness, she demanded that our institutions do better. Her campaigning sparked a long-overdue debate about the relationship between policing and racism in Great Britain. It culminated in changes to the criminal law and drove widescale police reform after the era-defining Macpherson
Report concluded that “institutional racism” was the main reason for the Metropolitan Police’s failure to solve Stephen’s case. Through the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, the Lawrence family have continued to support over a thousand young people from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups to create a fairer society in which every one of us – irrespective of background, race, or faith – can succeed. In keeping with the often-bittersweet spirit of Black History Month, Doreen Lawrence took profound personal tragedy and used it to make her surroundings fairer, safer, and ultimately, better. Whilst modern life provides no shortage of reminders that this work is far from over, the Lawrence Family’s campaign for justice serves to remind us of why we must never lose faith.
Inder Kaur-Singh: I am inspired by Rosa Parks
I am inspired by Rosa Parks known as “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. Rosa stood up to challenge the racial injustices and inequalities that black Americans were suffering in the 1950s. This courageous American civil rights activist refused to give up her sit to a white man on a Montgomery, Alabama bus in 1955. Her actions precipitated the civil rights movement and were the catalyst for the local black community organising the ‘Montgomery Bus Boycott’. She was convicted of violating the segregation laws, and not by coincidence lost her teaching job. The bus boycott lasted for one year led by Dr Martin Luther King – and ended only when the US Supreme Court ruled that bus segregation was unconstitutional. Over the next half-century Parks became a nationally recognised symbol of dignity and strength in the struggle to end entrenched racial segregation. For me she stands as a beacon of light and truth when the world refused to move out of the darkness and stop dehumanising black Americans. There is no act of bravery greater than standing up to the mob and this is what Rosa did. She is a reminder of why it is important for the oppressed to use their voices and speak truth to power.
Ayo Awoyungbo OBE: James Baldwin kept it real
The figure who inspires me above all others is the novelist, playwright and social critic James Baldwin (1924-1987). He kept it real. As one of the most eloquent chroniclers of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s, his fiction and essays served as a mirror which reflected the American psyche at the time, warts and all. Pragmatic and still relevant today, he opened my eyes to the fact that writing can be a potent form of activism for anyone interested in a more equitable society. Always true to his own convictions rather than to the tastes of others, he wrote what he wanted to write, beautifully. He inspired one of my favourite authors, Toni Morrison, and his books, like hers, have seen me through some difficult times. In his essay ‘My Dungeon Shook’ (from the book “The Fire Next Time,”) James Baldwin said ‘Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear’. True words.
Ruona Iguyovwe OBE: I am proud of Michelle Obama’s influence
One person who has inspired me a whole lot is Michelle Obama, American Attorney, author and former First lady of the United States. She says her mother expected them to figure some things out on their own and learn from their missteps and the process of making choices just like my own mother. Her mother gave her children agency at a very young age, and it is clear how that helped to shape Mrs Obama. I can say the same for my mother, and I am grateful for strong mothers who allow their children to have a voice. There was discipline, but there was also trust.
I am proud of Michelle’s influence. I am proud of the dignity with which she carries herself. I am proud of her education (educated at Harvard Law School, exceeding the expectations of a teacher who tried to put her down and quash her dreams and self-belief). I am proud of her passion for the education and empowerment of young girls and women. I am proud of Michelle as a mother. I am proud of her as a supportive wife who stood by her husband, Barack, through his time as President despite her misgivings about politics. I am very proud of how she built a protective nest around her children and her family throughout. I am proud that “when they went low” she and Barack went higher! Always dignified. I am proud of what she and her husband have achieved and their legacy. She has helped to create a space for other stories. She has indeed widened the pathway for who belongs and why. A true role model!
Zaf Iqbal: Muhammed Ali was brave and fearless
Muhammed Ali is the most inspirational and iconic person of his generation and even today, his ideology and philosophy ring true. Muhammed Ali was not only one of the greatest boxers in history who rose from anonymity to elite athlete status and became the heavyweight champion of the world, but this was achieved at a time when minorities in America were still being persecuted. Inside the ring, Muhammed Ali was a powerful and intelligent boxer which was a combination his opponents were unable to deal with. Outside the ring, Muhammed Ali was a caring individual who was on a journey of self-discovery and along that journey, he challenged his belief system and the establishment. In respect to himself, he found Islam which was a different belief system and religion to which he was raised in, despite the opposition from his family, he continued with his spiritual journey. He also challenged the establishment when he refused to be drafted into the US Army to fight against Vietnam. His punishment was a ban from boxing, although he challenged the ban his appeal was unsuccessful and he went to great lengths to fight again, regaining his world title.
Muhammed Ali was brave, fearless and stayed true to his civil rights beliefs, he was prepared to stand alone for what he believed in and commanded the respect of everyone across the world.
Zafar Iqbal, CPS West Midlands