Hidden Figures


Rowland Scherman

Photo of Martin Luther King Jr. giving his famous “I have a Dream” speech (Black & White). Photo courtesy of Rowland Scherman and the National Archives and Records Administration.

Malcolm X. Harriet Tubman. MLK. Muhammad Ali. Maya Angelou. Rosa Parks. All figures in black history shook society in their own way. With the world changing every day, the way people of color are impacting the world changes along with it.

According to the Library of Congress, National Black History Month started in 1915, proceeding with the founding of the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History by historian and author Dr. Carter G. Woodson. “Through this organization, Dr. Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week in February 1926. Dr. Woodson selected a week in February that included the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, two key figures in the history of Black Americans.”

Sports are one of the most competitive industries in the world, and even more competitive for people of color. Serena Williams, a world-renowned tennis player, beats all odds. Born on August 26th, 1981 in Satsuma, Alabama, Serena Williams inspires many. Winning 23 Grand Slam titles, and ranking No 1 for a total of 105 weeks during her career, Williams is considered one of the greatest players of all time. Initially coached by her parents, Oracene Price and Richard Williams, she won her first title at the 1999 US Open. As a result of all her accomplishments, Williams is seen as a huge influence in all sports. Junior Lillian Asokwah, appreciates the idea of having more women of color in sports.

“I don’t play tennis, but to see a black woman who is so successful at what she does is fascinating and rare. We consider Serena Williams to be literally one of the best tennis players in the world, and to see that type of representation as a dark-skinned black woman, is really great, and I can see how that can impact a young black girl who was scared to play tennis because it’s a white-dominated sport,” explained Asokwah.

In the 1830s, people of color were sometimes used for comedic purposes, and according to The National Museum of African American History and Culture, a site dedicated to African-American history, exaggerated “blackness,” also referred to as ”blackface.” was portrayed by white people in what would now be known as “stand-up” comedy shows. Black people were presented as lazy, superstitious, heavily religious, prone to criminal activity, and cowardly. With this, white people squeezed all black people into a stereotypical box, pushing a deeply rooted racist agenda onto the public. While things might have changed, there is still plenty of racism around comedy. Dondrinea Scretchings, a history teacher at Lake Ridge, understands how these racist practices affected the outlook on the comedic industry.

“Every negative stereotype that you could have about a black person was embodied in the person who’s doing the blackface. It was made to dehumanize and make fun of the ‘mean’, black people.” said Scretchings.

However, Eddie Murphy, actor, comedian, and singer, made his way up on a sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, and was regularly a part of the cast for 4 years, from 1980 to 1984. He then furthered his career by doing stand-up comedy and was ranked No.10 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 Greatest Stand-ups of All Time. He then acted in several movies including “Coming to America,” “Beverly Hills Cop”, and “Trading Places”. Murphy later won a Grammy and Emmy award, while receiving nominations for the Golden Globe award for his acting performances in “48 Hrs.” Murphy set the stage for many new black comedians, like Niles Abston, Nore Davis, and Yedoye Travis.

“Being black, you have to work twice as hard to get half as good. He had his mind set on what he wanted to achieve and worked hard and climbed his way up. Eddie Murphy took all of the people rooting against him and turned them into fans,” stated Scretchings.

For hundreds of years, white people have dominated the United States government, a majority being male, by limiting voting rights for black people and suppressing people of color even after the 14th and 15th Amendments. On January 20, 2009, Barack Hussein Obama II assumed office as the President of the United States, alongside his wife, Michelle Obama, and were both the first African Americans to serve in their positions. Obama served 2 terms, a total of 8 years, and finally left office on January 20, 2017. His vice president, Joe Biden, was elected president in 2020 and selected Kamala Harris as his Vice President. She had held many offices before, including United States Senator, and Attorney General, both from California. Once in office, she then called for reform in many areas including the death penalty; the Truancy initiative, and the re-entry initiative, an initiative dedicated to helping citizens return to their lives after their incarceration. Allyson Armstrong, a freshman, looks up to Kamala and sees her as a turning point in American politics.

“When I was younger, I would often ask my dad why we never had a woman as president. That curiosity followed me for so long until I figured out why. I had noticed how I simply didn’t see people like me in politics, and it made me mad. Why didn’t we get the same opportunities? I remember, though, when Joe Biden finally won the election, I was so happy to finally see a black woman taking the place of a white man. I know it sounds cliche, but honestly, I strive to be like her someday,” said Armstrong.

Publishing her first book in 1987, “Mama”, Terry McMillan was unsatisfied with her publisher’s limited promotion of the book. She then promoted her own novel by writing letters to thousands of booksellers, mainly those that were African-American owned. This pushed her book to sell out all of her original prints of 5,000 copies. After writing “Waiting to Exhale,” the book remained on The New York Times bestseller list for many months, and by 1995 it had sold more than three million copies. Her books made it into the mainstream, inspiring others to do the same. Octavia Brown, teacher at Lake Ridge, explains the impact of having black authors in the mainstream.

” I know these days kids don’t read as much as they used to, but when they do, it’s important for students of color to see and read books about things they can relate to. Whether it’s having kinky hair or racial prejudice, when kids see things they can connect with, it inspires them to do so much more,” stated Brown.

For centuries, black people have been suppressed and constantly undermined, but important figures like Eddie Murphy, Terry McMillan, and Kamala Harris are helping to turn things around. And while known figures are often taught in schools, there are many modern figures who helped shape our world into what it is today. Some are properly recognized, but others are less talked about, leaving students without a modern figure to relate to.