If we know anything about Black culture, we know that our legends never die because they live within us and through us. Black actors, entertainers, musicians, artists, activists, and public officials are indeed magical and make the world go round so the culture can spin on its axis.
Here are only a handful of the few legends of Black men and women that have blessed the world with their crafts in literature, acting, and public office. We cannot let the legends that have left us think we have forgotten about them. Be aware that their Black Magic lasts forever:
Toni Morrison (b. February 18, 1931—d. August 5, 2019)
There may be no other person who had a vision for the Black literary world like the genius that is known as Ms. Toni Morrison. She is the author of 11 novels and her ability to expose the history of race and identity in America so brilliantly through her prose and characters is truly a gift. So much so that she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for her prized novel Beloved in 1988; the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1977 for Song of Solomon; the first Black women to win the Nobel Prize in 1993; and, lastly, President Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Morrison believed wholeheartedly in the canon of black work and demands to writers: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
Ernest J. Gaines (b. January 15, 1933—d. November 5, 2019)
A true man of dignity and respect that transports those same ideals in his fiction, Ernest J. Gaines writes about race, culture, and injustice of Southern Louisiana. In his 10 fiction novels, Gaines uses his own experiences as the eldest of 12 children to demonstrate what dignity, humility, and poverty looks like in the face of adversity and injustice in the South. Gaines’ works reached mass appeal with his very first novel The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971), which was later made into a film starring Cicely Tyson. Another novel turned film was A Lesson Before Dying (1993), and another two were also adapted for film. It’s interesting to note that Gaines holds honorary doctorates from 19 universities and his works have been translated into 17 languages. Gaines’ concerns “are always with the capacity to confront oppression with dignity, to confront dissembling with triumph, and to replace the language of injustice with the transformative language of humane dialogue and social justice.”
Cicely Tyson (b. December 19, 1924—d. January 28, 2021)
Touted in theatre, film, and television, Cicely Tyson was a woman of sheer grace and talent in Hollywood. Ms. Tyson eventually appeared in over 29 films; at least 68 television series, mini-series and single episodes; and 15 productions on and off Broadway. Tyson broke into movies with the 1959 Harry Belafonte film Odds Against Tomorrow. However, Tyson didn’t play up the blaxploitation politics of the 1960s and waited until a role in Sounder came available in 1972, in which she was later recognized for an Oscar nomination. Cicely worked to shatter stereotypes about Black women: “The story in ‘Sounder’s a part of our history, a testimony to the strength of humankind…Our whole Black heritage is that of struggle, pride and dignity. The Black woman has never been shown on the screen this way before.” At 88, Tyson became the oldest person to win a Tony; at 93, she won an honorary Oscar, and was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2018 and into the Television Hall of Fame in 2020. She also won a career achievement Peabody Award in 2020.
John Lewis (b. February 21, 1940—d. July 17, 2020)
A champion of Civil Rights, equality, and justice, Representative John Lewis is the embodiment of our national American identity. Growing up in the segregated South, Lewis made his experiences the impetus to make the future better for others. From his adolescent years and beyond, he has been on the forefront of social movements and human right struggles in the U.S. Along with fellow activist, Hosea Williams, John Lewis led over 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965. This eventual day will later become known as “Bloody Sunday but would culminate in marches that lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1986, Lewis was elected to Congress and represented Georgia’s 5th Congressional District. Lewis’ legacy speaks volumes—on the House floor in Dec. 2019 he exclaims—“Our children and their children will ask us, ‘What did you do? What did you say?’ For some, this vote may be hard. But we have a mission and a mandate to be on the right side of history.”