Not just about history: Recognizing contemporary black individuals

AP Photo United States' Serena Williams poses with her trophy after defeating her sister Venus to win the women's singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.

AP Photo
United States’ Serena Williams poses with her trophy after defeating her sister Venus to win the women’s singles final at the Australian Open tennis championships in Melbourne, Australia, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017.

February is Black History Month, a time of the year dedicated to exploring and celebrating the black experience. Typically that manifests itself in exaltation of figures from the past, as the name “History” might imply. That said, the present is just as much a part of the story. With that in mind, five Duke writers chose contemporary black figures — from politicians to business owners to athletes — they think deserve special recognition.


Barbara Lee

By Raymond Arke

Barbara Lee is a U.S. Representative from California that has been in office since her first election in 1990. Most notable about Lee is her constant advocation for peace, specifically by becoming the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) in 2001. This bill was voted on just three days after the 9/11 attacks and gave power to the military to go after the 9/11 terrorists and “associated forces.”

Since the legislation was left so vague, Lee felt it would give the president too much open-ended power to make war. Her lone dissent left the tally between the House and the Senate at 518 votes to her one. It takes incredible bravery to stand up for what you believe in, regardless of the overwhelming pressure to join everyone else. Lee is a great example of someone who is dedicated to peace and stands strong in her convictions.


Nisha Blackwell

By Elsa Buehler

While working as a barista in 2014, Nisha Blackwell, a Pittsburgh native, began teaching herself how to sew. When she was let go as a result of downsizing, she fully immersed herself in her sewing and created her company, Knotzland. Blackwell hires local artists to create one of a kind bowties made from “waste textiles,” defined by Knotzland’s website as otherwise unusable and non-biodegradable textile materials.

Blackwell emphasizes the importance of upcycling, using materials that already exist in the world, a principle on which she has built her success. Inspired by her passions for design and environmental consciousness, Blackwell has gone from making small bows as gifts for her friends’ children to running a leading sustainable fashion line in a very short time. In an interview with Jenesis Magazine, Blackwell said, “Pittsburgh is a great city to start something.” Hopefully Pittsburgh is good for longevity as well.


Serena Williams

By Ollie Gratzinger

As an African American woman working in a field that many think ought to be labeled, “No girls allowed,” tennis star Serena Williams has triumphed time and time again over not only the athletic industry’s rampant sexism, but racism as well. With 39 major titles tucked under her belt — more than any other active player — her talent, skill and passion for the sport is indisputable.

There’s no doubt that she sets the foundation for the ideal that anyone can do anything, regardless of their race or sex. With her strong appearance and ready-to-win disposition, she defines greatness and defies any and all stereotypes that might be served her way. She’ll go down in history as a beacon of black excellence, regardless of what the haters say on Twitter.


Kendrick Lamar

By Sean Armstrong

Like many musicians, Lamar was thrust into the limelight and has stayed there ever since. The difference between Lamar and many of his peers is simple yet important. Lamar writes music not just to make money or garner attention; he writes music to address issues, issues he has held close to him post-stardom.

Lamar hasn’t forgotten about where he grew up or those that have helped him gain the fame he now flourishes in; instead he tries to better Compton. He does so in two ways: One, by using his music to explain the issues he and people like him face that many could not otherwise understand, and two, by using his position to tackle difficult issues. Out of that process has grown inspiration for activism.


Stevie Wonder

By Claudia Hardy

Stevie Wonder is one of the most important figures in black music and American culture. He has reinvented the concept of entertainment and lyrical expression through his songs, leaving echoes of his music around the world. His performances focus less on the appearance and more on his voice and messages.

Wonder doesn’t have the advantage of being able to see people, so the music comes from his heart and whatever he feels and hears. He has composed dozens of classic songs, racking up many hits on the pop and R&B charts. Wonder has redefined the music industry and will continue to do so forever.  

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