How Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Spike Lee, the Obamas and More Stars Paid Tribute to Black History Month This Year
The power couple’s nod to Meghan Markle in their Brit Awards acceptance speech was just one of the ways they highlighted strong black role models throughout Black History Month.
On Beyoncé’s website, the singer shared images and profiles of people including activist Janet Mock, Walker & Company founder Tristan Walker and psychiatrist Dr. Jessica Clemons, among others.
After Lee’s film BlackKklansman won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Oscars, the director leapt into presenter Samuel L. Jackson’s arms before beginning his acceptance speech.
In his tear-jerking speech, Lee acknowledged Black History Month — which he pointed out “happens to be the shortest month of the year” — sharing some of his family’s stories of triumph in the face of oppression.
Lee celebrated the sacrifice his grandmother made for him, revealing she “saved 50 years of social security checks” to put him through Morehouse College and New York University graduate film school, and that she herself was a graduate of Spelman College, while her mother had been a slave.
In addition to recognizing those who have paved the way over the years, the former First Lady dedicated Black History Month to “all the history being made right now.”
Throughout February, Mrs. Obama shared stories on Instagram of young people who have inspired her — “young people who stand on the shoulders of the giants we celebrate this month while also building a legacy of their own,” she wrote.
The Orange Is the New Black star wrote an essay for TIME’s 2019 Optimists issue titled, “When I Need Hope, I Look to the History of Black Brilliance.” In it, she honored the legacy and inspiration of two of her idols, opera singers Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price, who broke color barriers in the operatic world. She reflected on how these women, as well as her ancestors, help her to hold onto optimism in difficult times.
“My ancestors went through slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, and yet managed to come out with some of the best music, art and culture that the world has ever known,” she wrote. “So many of us have managed to excel and have love in our hearts in the face of such degradation. When I look at the history and the brilliance of African Americans, it gives me a tremendous amount of optimism with perspective.”
She concluded the essay with, “It is horrible what far too many of us have endured. But the history of black excellence in America gives us a template for how to fight — and how to not be demoralized by the fight.”
The Green Book actor, who won an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his performance, joined a handful of fellow celebrities — including John David Washington, Tracee Ellis Ross and Lena Waithe — in curating Black History Month-inspired playlists for Apple Music, EW revealed.
Ali’s playlist features songs that have helped him get into character, he explained. “One of the gifts in acting is that I’m required to embrace the lives of other men,” he said. “It’s always a black man challenging me to tell his story with empathy absent of judgment. These songs have inspired qualities in several characters during my exploration of the diverse and beautifully complex black identity.”
The Black-ish actress and producer directed the ABC series’ “Black History Month” episode, which highlighted African-American history makers and guest-starred Octavia Spencer.
“The message of the episode really is that we are a vast group of people that historically, in the present, and in the future that’s coming down the pike, there is more to share that could never fit into a month,” Ross told Variety. “It’s not about celebrating for just one moment; it’s about liberating and empowering the different stories and different voices so we can all be lifted up by them as a culture — not just as black people.”
The former President shared a thoughtful list of non-fiction reading recommendations in honor of Black History Month. On his Facebook page, he wrote that he hoped his list “can help to provide some essential context about the challenges that many people of color face every day.”
“From modern memoirs to cornerstones of the American narrative, these works can help us better understand our country’s past and our evolving, persistent struggles with race — and they can be fuel on our journey toward a more fair and just future for all of our sons and daughters. They certainly are for me,” he shared.
Among his suggestions: The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, “The Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King, Jr. and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.
The actress and creator of The Chi also wrote an essay for TIME’s 2019 Optimism issue, centered on the “black renaissance” of Hollywood and how much further the industry has to go.
“What makes me optimistic today are the people trying to rip up what it means to be black and successful in Hollywood and rebuild it afresh,” she began.
“White folks have everything, and we still have a lot of catching up to do. It’s too soon to be patting ourselves on the back like the problem is solved,” she continued, expressing that shows featuring all-black casts like Atlanta and movies like Black Panther are big (and long-overdue) steps, but there’s still a ways to go.
The rapper celebrated Black History Month by teaming up with Google Arts & Culture to pay tribute to black musicians who have changed history and influenced him as an artist, Essence reported.
In the video, he spoke about the legacies of his father, Olu Dara, plus Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and more.
“Our music has been a relentless advocate for our story, which plays a crucial role in the American narrative: Red, white and blues, baby…We are here,” he wrote in an open letter in addition to the video. “From the beginning. For forever. From science labs to spaceships, from jazz riffs to higher consciousness, we continue to rise.”
Turning the spotlight on African-American musicians who have been historically overlooked by white audiences, the Wrinkle in Time director challenged her followers over Twitter to “name a song and artist that you love but it’s safe to assume your Caucasian friend, family, coworker, neighbor, whatever, has no idea even exists. But should.”
Her pick? “If You Were Here Tonight,” by Alexander O’Neal.
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