African American Influencers: Impact Above and Beyond

Recently my editor asked me to write an article about African American influencers. My first question was if the people I highlight should be from today or from the past. She told me focus on the word “influencer” rather than on the when.  

My second question was to myself as I began to wrap my ahead around the direction I wanted to take the article. I had a list of many people I wanted to include. However I took pause as I wanted to be careful and do the topic justice as I am a 30 something white woman.

I took on the task and started making a list of modern African-American public figures that have inspired me and are changing the world with their art, skills, books and outreach. I’m drawn to people who use their voice or platform to elevate and educate the masses on important issues. Whether it be history, politics or injustice of rights and race, I admire those who shed light on humanitarian topics that need to be discussed to bring about change and equality.

While I am white, the major influencers in my life have been Africa-American women like Ava DuVernay, Michelle Obama, Oprah, Beyonce, Eryka Badu. I’m drawn to their strength, poise, knowledge and inspiring life stories. They have all overcame struggles and now live full, bold, authentic lives and shine while doing so as they have found their way to pursuing their passions and soul purpose.

I wanted to include some men on this list as well.  Of course President Obama comes to mind as an Icon of African-American change and influence in our life time.  I’ve also followed the work of Ryan Coogler and his work at elevating black culture through the stories he tells in his movies and choosing to work with black actors.

While I have dated black men and have many black friends, I had not had a conversation with many about who they looked up to. So I asked two of my African-american male friends if they had influencers that they think other people should know about or that had changed their lives. Both these gentlemen gave me their top picks, however a few days later one of them reached back out with a point that he had mentioned to another friend that I was writing about African-American influences. He was questioning my motives, knowledge and what do I know as a middle-aged white woman from Oregon.

I respect this man immensely. He is highly educated, driven, masters degree, doctorate degree and still works in education trying to get black youth into good schools and help them with scholarships. As I respect him and we have had deep conversations on race prior during our 10 year friendship, I thought he had a valid point. Even though this was an assignment from my editor, maybe I don’t have the knowledge, background, understanding to do this article justice.

I have had many long-term relationships with African-American and mixed-race men and women. Two of my closest girlfriends are not white and we have had deep conversations on race through our years of friendship as well.

I have immersed myself in history and documentaries to understand racism and how the country got to the divided place it is at now.  I have always wanted to understand what was the set up to get us there in the first place. I’ve had open discussions with my friends of color and their parents telling stories of discrimination firsthand.

I have been in the car with friends of color when we have been pulled over by the cops and they put their hands on the dash and up in the air before the cops even got to the car. I have been to the family dinners and been the only white person there. I have felt the mistrusting stares and comments of black grandparents as they did not want a white lady at their house.  

I have listened to friends describe what it was like growing up amongst the gangs in Watts. Others who have described escaping the torment of racist cops in Brooklyn. I have witnessed firsthand what many white people never get to. If they have not stepped outside of their comfort zone to extend friendship or at least a conversation with people that don’t look like them, then there is no bridge to learn from one another. Without conversation there is no bridge to understanding where another came from. No chance to learn from each others stories.

My skin color gives me a luxury that my friends of color do not have. While I can try to empathize, I realize that there are limits to what I can understand. Thinking about my friends and loved ones of color, I decided to keep working on this article (and some others) anyway. Not with the intention of trying to sound “Black” or represent the community, because I’m not Black and I don’t.

I took on this work because there are a lot of amazing people of color out there that need to be recognized for their amazing accomplishments on this Earth. And as I did a lot of research and poured my heart out, I found out even more amazing details about the figures I wanted to highlight as well as others that were helping in their charities and movements.

While I may not be black, I feel like I could pull together an article to inspire others to check out these beautiful people making changes in the world for the better. Whether it be through their art or sharing the history that has been forgotten and left out of many stories that we grew up with.

But in the writing, I found that the article had changed. No longer was I writing an article about amazing people. Instead, I found myself typing what you are reading here, which is more about the need for people to confront the issues of race that exist in our country.

I now believe my mission is more humanitarian than white versus black. If I have information that spreads humanity through stories of different people’s experiences, through different culture, different race, different histories, then I feel it is my duty to share what I do learn. It is my mission to spark curiosity in the mind of someone who’s never left their state, who does not have a friend of color, who has not seen a documentary telling the truth of which this country was built on not so long ago.

When I took this article on I realized my influencers were mainly women and I want to share their stories. Those women just happen to be black women. However in our country I often feel it is the minorities, whether it be race or gender, that end up having to tell their stories of overcoming adversity and stories of struggle. Through their stories we become a stronger more loving global community. That is my goal and purpose in sharing these individuals in the upcoming articles.

I believe that my generation of 30 something’s is hungry for knowledge. We are frustrated with the fact that there is still injustice. When I was growing up I believed women rights had been taken care of we were equal. I now know we still have a long fight in gender equality from pay gap to reproductive rights.

I feel lucky to have had a teacher in my seventh grade year who made it her mission to bring race issues into the classroom in a school that did not have one African American child. She had us study Africa and showed us the movie Roots. I believe this gave me empathy for all races on a whole different level.

This one teacher was pivotal in my development and view on humanity. She was white and had adopted a black child. During my seventh grade year in school she told the story of coming into the bathroom to find him scrubbing his skin and he did not understand why his skin was different from hers. She also brought Maria Mutola into the class,  who was a world class female runner from Mozambique. She came to Oregon as a young athlete and found a host school in my home town of Springfield, Oregon. She spoke in my class about her journey from a shanty town in Mozambique to pursuing her passion of running.

This one teacher in middle school has had a lasting impact on how I look at race and how I cannot believe that there are still as many injustices as there are.

My love of dance and music also had me searching to know where the music came from. I wanted to know the history of these musicians. I learned of their struggles the more I dug. I wanted to learn the story of where jazz came from. All the music that made me move and cry and feel something in my soul. I can’t explain it but it’s a feeling that goes beyond the color of my skin or the traditions of my family.

I’m also of an age that grew up when hip-hop was exploding and this had an influence on my life as well. As the culture became more mainstream and the stories of people and places were told to beats and rhythms that appealed to my ears.

The bass lines moved me, the sax and the horn’s too. To me these are soulful instruments producing the vibrations that spoke to my heart and soul.

At the end of the day I feel through this article and ones to come in the future that I can spark awareness and curiosity to sheltered or close minded people. If my experience, friends and knowledge that I have acquired outside the confines of my home and white community can help bridge the gap or bring awareness, I’m ok putting myself out there in sharing African-American influencers.

My hope is that the next generation won’t have to have disclaimers of why they want to talk about amazing people of a different race.  My goal is to be a bridge of open conversation. I think that is the start of seeing the world as a global community that is represented by ever race and color.