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July 15, 2021
Black Leaders Awareness Day (BLAD) was created to enable people from all cultures to experience the wisdom of past, current, and next-generation black leaders through the messages and media that they share. The day was created to highlight the importance of black leaders and those who support diverse leadership. BLAD believes it is vital we ensure that the history of black leaders remains at the forefront of society so that we understand and acknowledge the impact these leaders had throughout history, right through to the present day and beyond. Black Leaders Awareness Day showcases historic as well as current and next-generation black leaders every year on the 18th July. We decided to mark this hugely important day by celebrating some of the black leaders who have touched and inspired our lives...
A Terrible Beauty Is Born, 2019. ©Mary Sibande
Mary Sibande is a South African artist based in Johannesburg. Her art consists mostly of sculptures, paintings, photography, and textiles. Born in 1982, Sibande saw the fall of apartheid during her early adolescence. She told Robb Report that she still remembers the days when her family was forced to carry dompasses (identification cards held by all black South Africans—the name translates to “dumb pass”). She also remembers the protests that helped pushed apartheid toward its end, and her country’s first free elections in 1994. She often uses her alter ego Sophie, a life-size sculpture made in her likeness, to explore the reclamation of the Black female body post-apartheid and rewrite her family’s legacy as domestic workers. “My work is not about complaining about apartheid, or an invitation to feel sorry for me because I am Black and my mothers were maids,” she once said. “It is about celebrating what we are as women in South Africa today.”
Steve Biko was a hugely influential South African anti-apartheid activist. He was at the forefront of a grassroots anti-apartheid campaign known as the Black Consciousness Movement during the late 1960s and 1970s. His ideas were articulated in a series of articles published under the pseudonym Frank Talk. Biko was raised by a poor Xhosa family and grew up in poverty in the Ginsberg township in the Eastern Cape. In 1966 he began studying medicine and quickly became involved in the political group, the National Union of South African Students or NUSAS. He was frustrated with the groups largely white liberal front and believed anti-apartheid groups should be led by the black people who were most affected by apartheid. In 1968 he set up the South African Students' Organisation (SASO) solely for black members in order to amplify black voices in the fight against apartheid. He was careful to keep his movement independent of white liberals, but opposed anti-white hatred and supported white-led ally organisations. Biko is known for adopting the slogan "black is beautiful" and encouraged black South Africans to rid themselves of any sense of racial inferiority or internalised racism. The government saw Biko as a threat and placed him under a banning order in 1973, severely restricting his activities. However, he remained politically active, helping organise community initiatives such as a healthcare centre and a crèche in the Ginsberg area. During his ban he received repeated anonymous threats, and was detained by state security services on several occasions. Following his arrest in August 1977, Biko was beaten to death by state security officers. Over 20,000 people attended his funeral and his fame spread posthumously.
A rendering of the Adjaye Associates design for a memorial to police shooting victim Cherry Groce via Adjaye Associates
Sir David Frank Adjaye OBE is a Ghanaian-British architect. He is known for designing many notable buildings around the world, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. In 2000, David founded his own practice, Adjaye Associates, which today operates worldwide, with studios in Accra, London, and New York with architectural projects that span the globe. Born in Tanzania, Adjaye's father was a diplomat whose work meant that the family travelled a lot. He came to appreciate the stability that architecture could offer people. Adjaye says that "Ultimately, architecture is “a social act” — it’s about constructing buildings that acknowledge and understand their histories, whilst creating something entirely new, in order to serve communities into their futures." He was knighted in 2017 New Year Honours for his services to architecture. Most recently, Adjaye was announced the winner of the 2021 RIBA Royal Gold Medal. Approved personally by Her Majesty the Queen, the Royal Gold Medal is considered one of the highest honors in British architecture for significant contribution to the field internationally.
Marsha P. Johnson was a trans woman who became an important face to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community in New York City. Known as an outspoken advocate for gay rights, Johnson was one of the prominent figures in the Stonewall uprising of 1969. Johnson was a founding member of the Gay Liberation Front and co-founded the radical activist group Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (S.T.A.R.), alongside close friend Sylvia Rivera. Johnson was also a popular figure in New York City's gay and art scene, modelling for Andy Warhol, and performing onstage with the drag performance troupe Hot Peaches. Johnson was known as the "mayor of Christopher Street" due to her being a welcoming presence in the streets of Greenwich Village. From 1987 through to 1992, Johnson was an AIDS activist with ACT UP, an international, grassroots political group working to end the AIDS pandemic. Johnson was one of the first drag queens to go to the Stonewall Inn, after they began allowing women and drag queens inside as it was previously a bar for only gay men. On the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, the Stonewall uprising occurred after police raided the Stonewall bar to assault and prosecute gay patrons. While the first two nights of rioting were the most intense, the clashes with police would result in a series of spontaneous demonstrations and marches for over a week.
Detail from 1982 painting “Untitled”
A poet, musician, and graffiti prodigy in late-1970s New York, Jean-Michel Basquiat is infamous for his signature painting style of scribbling, bold colours and mask and skull-like imagery. “I don’t think about art while I work,” he once said. “I think about life.” Basquiat drew his subjects from his own heritage—his father was Haitian and his mother of Puerto Rican descent. Regarded as one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, he was part of the Neo-expressionism movement. Basquiat received massive acclaim in only a few short years, showing alongside iconic artists like Julian Schnabel, David Salle, and Francesco Clemente. In 1983, Basquiat met Andy Warhol, who would come to be his mentor. The two collaborated on a series of paintings before Warhol’s death in 1987, followed by Basquiat’s own tragic passing a year later. His art was heavily focused on class, poverty and segregation. He also focused on portraying the black experience in New York at the time, where racism was still rife. He was acutely political within his work and direct in his criticism of colonialism and class disparity. In May 2017, Untitled, a 1982 painting by Basquiat sold for $110.5 million, becoming one of the most expensive paintings ever purchased. Artist Keith Haring wrote in an obituary for Vogue; "He truly created a lifetime of works in ten years. Greedily, we wonder what else he might have created, what masterpieces we have been cheated out of by his death, but the fact is that he has created enough work to intrigue generations to come. Only now will people begin to understand the magnitude of his contribution."
Known as the “Moses of her people,” Harriet Tubman was enslaved, escaped, and helped others gain their freedom as a “conductor" of the Underground Railroad. Tubman also served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier, and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. She is considered to be the first African American woman to serve in the military. At age 5, her enslavers rented her out to neighbours as a domestic servant. Early signs of her resistance to slavery were evident by age 12 when she intervened to keep her master from beating an enslaved man who had tried to escape. She was hit in the head with a two-pound weight, leaving her with a lifetime of severe health problems. Although slaves were not legally allowed to marry, Tubman entered a marital union with John Tubman, a free black man, in 1844. She took his name and named herself Harriet. The Underground Railroad was established in the late eighteenth century by black and white abolitionists and granted passage to safety and freedom for many enslaved black people. After gaining her own freedom, Tubman returned to the South several times and helped dozens of people escape. She was never caught, and none of her 'passengers' were ever discovered or harmed. Her success led slaveowners to post a $40,000 reward for her capture or death. Through the Underground Railroad, Tubman learned information that made her important to Union military commanders during the Civil War. As a Union spy and scout, she would wander the streets under Confederate control and learn from the enslaved population about Confederate troop placements and supply lines. Tubman helped many of these individuals find food, shelter, and even jobs in the North. As a nurse, Tubman dispensed herbal remedies to black and white soldiers dying from infection and disease.
Daniel Kaluuya and Jordan Peele filming the game-room scene of Get Out shot by Justin Lubin
Jordan Peele is an American actor, comedian and filmmaker. He is best known for his television and film work in the comedy and horror genres. First appearing on Fox's comedy sketch series Mad TV, Peele had great success as an actor, voice actor and producer before making his directorial debut. The horror film, Get Out, was a huge critical and box office success. The haunting story of a young black man lured by his white girlfriend to her family home in the country, where they plan to replace his brain with an older white person’s. Peele said of the film; "I had never seen the uncomfortableness of being the only black guy in a room played in a film. That notion is a perfect state for a protagonist of a horror film to be in, to question his own sanity. Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives were movies that did with gender what I wanted to do with race. And then, [once I] decided that I wanted to bite off the difficult task of making a film about race, that was a scary notion. If you fail at that, you’ve really failed." The film earned Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Original Screenplay, making Peele just the third person to receive the three nominations for a debut film, and the first black person to receive them for any one film. He also earned the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award at the 2017 Gotham Independent Film Awards and was nominated for a DGA Award and BAFTA for Best Original Screenplay. Get Out earned more than $100 million at the box office in just 16 days, making Peele the first African-American writer-director to pass that threshold with his debut feature film.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about some of these iconic and inspirational black leaders. We believe it is vital for every person to work towards dismantling racism in their daily lives, and uplifting and celebrating black leaders is a fantastic place to start. You can read more about Black Leaders Awareness Day here.
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