Black History Month: The Black Icons That The Mainstream Forgot About

Most people have heard the words "I have a dream" and understand why Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, but there are many brave black icons that have been somewhat forgotten about...
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Morgan Freeman once famously criticised the concept of Black History Month stating: “I don't want a black history month. Black history is American history.” While I understand the point Mr Freeman was making, I disagree with his statement. Black history is not American history, black history is human history.

That being said, as a black person I am proud that there is a month set aside every year specifically for the education and celebration of my heritage. But over the years Black History Month has lost its way. To me, Black History Month is about recognising brave people and the actions that have awarded them their bravery. While I am happy that I live in a world where a majority of people have heard the words, "I have a dream", where people understand why Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus, and can’t help but respect the name Nelson Mandela, there are many more black icons that the mainstream has omitted, here are just a few.

Mary Seacole

Many have heard of Florence Nightingale but very few know of Mary Seacole. She was a skilful mixed-race nurse and ‘doctress’ from Kingston Jamaica, whose desire to treat the wounded led her to travel to London in the hopes of volunteering as a nurse in the Crimean War. Due to gender prejudice, Mary’s application was rejected. Later when the British government permitted women to travel to the affected areas, Mary was not included on the list of 38 nurses chosen by Florence Nightingale. But a still determined, Mary borrowed money and made the 4,000 mile trip by herself and used her knowledge of tropical medicines to treat the wounded soldiers.

In her lifetime, Seacole was honoured for her bravery and selflessness alongside Florence Nightingale, but after her death in 1881, she was forgotten from the history books for almost a century. Today, she is remembered as "a woman who succeeded despite the racial prejudice of influential sections of Victorian society".

Bernie Grant

Bernie Grant was a UK politician and Labour Member of Parliament for Tottenham at the time of his death. Many regard him as one of the most charismatic black political leaders of modern times. His death on the 8th of April 2000, marked almost four decades of campaigning for racial justice and minority rights.

Grant received a lot of bad press after the Broadwater Farm riots when he was miss-quoted as saying, “what the police got was a bloody good hiding”, after policeman PC Blakelock was murdered during the riots.

Despite the controversy, Grant became the MP for Tottenham in 1987, making him one of only three black MPs at the time. At his funeral, it is reported that approximately 3,000 people turned up to salute the black radical.

Mary Prince

Long before Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen and the birth of the Harlem Renaissance documented the words of black western writers; Mary Prince became one of the first black writers to be published in Britain after she shocked the west with her account of the horrors of slavery. The History of Mary Prince (1831) had an electrifying impact on the anti-slavery movement after it was published during a time where slavery was still legal in British Caribbean colonies.

The book recounts of how Prince was sold to James Adam Wood in 1818 for $300 and sent to Antigua to be a domestic slave. It goes into detail of how she was severely beaten at the hand of her master for marrying Daniel James, a former slave who bought his freedom. Prince’s first-hand account, authentic tone, and simple prose was something that her political opponents could not match but they still criticised and questioned the accuracy of her words, and her book led to two libel cases.

It is unclear what happened to Prince after the publication of her book, and if she was ever given her freedom to return to her husband in Antigua.

Mary Prince became one of the first black writers to be published in Britain after she shocked the west with her account of the horrors of slavery.

Ben Okri

Considered one of the foremost African authors in the post-modern and post-colonial traditions, Ben Okri is a Booker Prize winning Nigerian born novelist and poet, whose works have favourably been compared to that of Salman Rushdie and Gabriel García Márquez.

Okri’s family moved to London when he was less than two-years old so that his father Silver could study law. His father moved his family back to Lagos, Nigeria in 1968 where he provided free legal services to those who could not afford it. Okri’s exposure during this time to the Nigerian Civil War and a culture where his peers reported to have seen spirits later influenced Okri’s fiction.

In the late 1970s, Okri moved back to England to study comparative literature at Essex University with a grant from the Nigerian government. He found himself homeless when the funding for his scholarship fell through. During this time, he sometimes lived in parks and with friends. He describes this period as "very, very important" to his work.

Okri was made an honorary Vice-President of the English Centre for the International PEN and a member of the board of the Royal National Theatre. On 26 April 2012, he was appointed the new vice-president of the Caine Prize for African Writing, having been on the advisory committee and associated with the prize since it was established 13 years previously.

Courtney Pine

Regarded as Britain’s most innovative jazz saxophonists, Courtney Pine’s debut album, Journey to the Urge released in 1987 was the first serious jazz album ever to make the Top 40, and established Pine as the leading figure in the British jazz scene, and an inspiration to many young musicians, black

He was honoured with a MOBO award for best jazz act for two years in a row (1996 and 1997). In 2000, he was awarded an OBE and a CBE in 2009. Today he lives with his family in London and hosts a popular show on BBC radio 2.

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