Opinion | Recognizing important Black voices

For Black History Month, the Opinions staff reflects on the lives and legacies of influential figures in Black history.



Peter Anders, Opinions Contributor

Spike Lee

A person I look up to is the legendary filmmaker Spike Lee.

Born in Atlanta, Georgia on March 20, 1957, he grew up to be one of the premiere Black filmmakers of the modern day. He works in an entertainment landscape that notoriously is not very forgiving to filmmakers from marginalized groups, which requires them to work harder than everyone else.

He managed to not only work in this harsh environment, but also thrive and manage to get nominated for multiple Academy Awards such as Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. His films contribute greatly to societal discourse around important issues relating to race.

What makes him my choice is his persistence and his unique touch to everything he makes. Every single one of his films has his unique touch and style to it, unlike some films where it could be directed by anyone, and you could choose almost anyone to direct it. Whatever Spike Lee directs feels like it could only ever be directed by him.

Lee’s ability to keep making art, his perseverance, and contributions to cinema are why I admire him.

Naomi Rivera-Morales, Opinions Columnist

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was widely known for her autobiographical writing. She was also a singer, dancer, scholar, and activist throughout her time. In her book “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” Angelou wrote about her personal strength, outlining the trauma and the racism that she had gone through during her childhood. Many readers were able to resonate with these traumas, helping them tell the stories of their own survival. In fact, the book was recognized for a National Book Award.

Amid the books that Angelou had written, she was not only nationally recognized but also internationally. In 2011, former President Barack Obama awarded her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is given to those who have the highest honor.

Angelou had also been a part of the Harlem Writers Guild where she aided in the publication and the recognition of Black authors. She was also part of the Civil Rights Movement and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which was an advocacy organization for African Americans.

Angelou cared deeply about those who needed a voice, showing this through various forms of passion and advocacy. I admire her for that and more.

Gabriel Arboleda, Opinions Contributor

Scott Joplin

Scott Joplin was an African American pianist and composer.

Joplin started studying and practicing music at an early age. He is believed to have had a German piano teacher who taught him to play polkas when he was a child. Later, Joplin mastered the rhythm of “ragtime,” a style of Afro-American folk music. Combining his knowledge of European ballads with the African rhythms of ragtime, Joplin produced a unique style of music.

After publishing some of his pieces, Joplin’s ragtime became a hit among America’s general public. In 1899, Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” became the most sold piece of sheet music to date, with upward estimates of one million sold copies. Joplin’s music was the first Afro-American music to impact mainstream popular culture. His music has been greatly influential, leading to the creation of other Afro-American styles such as Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, and Rock and Roll.

Joplin died in 1917 after a long battle with syphilis. His music was enjoyed by people of all races during a time of intense racial segregation, and he would forever change the trajectory of American music.

Chris Klepach, Opinions Columnist

Olaudah Equiano

Olaudah Equiano is written in history as one of the most influential African-born writers in the world.

To get there, he endured hardship as an enslaved child, and he was kidnapped from Igbo village  He had to learn how to read and write in Virginia before buying his own emancipation in 1766.

His autobiography “The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano” was published in 1789. This writing exposed through firsthand testimony the suffering that came with the transatlantic slave trade. This work details his experience as a slave during his life in present-day Nigeria.

However, his written narrative shows pride in the heritage he came from and exposed to millions through several re-prints the injustices he went through alongside the nearly 13 million Africans that were taken from their homes.

When Equiano arrived in London as a free man, he connected with abolitionist figures like Gran Sharp. Through the publishing of his work and his organization with abolitionist figures, he stood fighting for the equal treatment of Africans by the European powers that enslaved people. He exposed much of the American and European public to the atrocities of the transatlantic slave trade and has gone down as being one of the fathers/mothers of the slave narrative.

He gave a voice to those who were burdened by the system of human commodification, and a powerful one at that.

Luke Krchak, Opinions Contributor

Gwendolyn Brooks

As a writer, I am inspired by people like Gwendolyn Brooks who work to help other writers get published.

Brooks was born in 1917 and died in 2000. She was a poet who dealt with and interacted with the turmoil and racial injustices of her time. Her greatest works showed life before and during the 1960s civil rights movement.

I first learned of her work in my interpretation of literature class when we both read and heard the poem “We Real Cool.” Brooks was the first Black author to win a Pulitzer Prize, and she was the first Black woman to be a poetry consultant in the library of congress.

She is the prime example of what we as writers and people should be. We should not only break the barriers that limited us, but help others reach a similar level of success. Thank you to Brooks for aiding Black authors and Black publishers to get their works published, and for the poetry that relates to problems that still are prevalent today.

Evan Weidl, Opinions Columnist

Fred Hampton

The 1960’s civil rights movement gave rise to countless heroes, but none were quite like Fred Hampton.

Hampton was the deputy chairman of the national Black Panther Party and the chairman of the Illinois chapter. His entire life was spent fighting injustice.

When he was in high school, he organized walkouts protesting the exclusion of Black students from the homecoming queen competition and advocated to hire more Black teachers and administrators. He studied the law and used his knowledge in defense of himself and others from police.

Hampton was a master of unifying people for a greater cause, something he proved when he successfully helped craft a non-aggression pact between Chicago gangs. Facing a legal system and law enforcement that tried to intimidate him, spread misinformation about him, and destroy the organizations he worked with, Chairman Hampton fought tooth and nail for justice and equality.

Although he was assassinated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Chicago Police Department at just 21 years old, his courage and determination left a legacy that will inspire activists for generations to come.

Katie Perkins, Opinions Contributor


Rihanna is not just known for her music. She has a presence that exudes confidence, and her womanhood is a valuable part of her persona. Rihanna has been a role model for as long as she has been in the public eye.

She was born in St. Michael, Barbados, and is dedicated to supporting where she came from. She founded The Clara Lionel Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in climate justice initiatives and funds health clinics and schools in both the U.S. and Barbados.

She emphasizes inclusivity in everything she does. Her makeup label Fenty Beauty, preaches beauty for all, and was one of the first brands to carry a proper range of shades for all skin tones.

Rihanna is there when we need her. When I need a good cry, so I blast “California King Bed” in my car. In the club when “Don’t Stop the Music” is playing, and the girls know every word. She is an inspiration for young Black children who turn on the television and can witness her success. She was the youngest artist in history to achieve ten number-one hits, and she will forever be an icon.

Kyle Tristan Ortega, Opinions Contributor

Muhammad Ali

Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was a heavyweight champion boxer who became a prominent civil rights figure in America because of his outspokenness on issues involving race, religion, and politics.

Growing up in his hometown, Louisville, Kentucky, Ali had many experiences with racism and white supremacy. This adversity is what started his advocacy for racial justice. It shaped him into the man he would eventually become — a man who challenged racism, white supremacy, and segregation in America.

He is man who denounced the Vietnam War because it was inhumane, despite the obvious repercussions doing this would bring. He was not afraid of speaking up against injustice, and it is for this reason that I admire him and his advocacy. Too many people in the world are exploited, discriminated against, and oppressed. Often, these people do not have the means to do anything about it. However, Ali, with his position as a world-famous boxer, used his platform to become the voice of the voiceless.

Even though this subjected him to scrutiny and controversy, he continued to do so and became an icon for social justice. Ali will not only be remembered for his boxing, but also for the things he did to change the world.

Yasmina Sahir, Opinions Columnist

Ruby Bridges

Ruby Bridges is the person on my mind this Black History Month. Raised in Louisiana, Bridges was the first Black student in the southern U.S. to attend a white public school.

Bridges first attended William Frantz Elementary School on Nov. 14, 1960, six years after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision made segregation in public schools federally illegal.

Bridges experienced harassment, threats, and community alienation as a young child from others in favor of segregation. As an adult, her career passion has been focused on fighting for tolerance and change in schools. She continues this work through her organization titled The Ruby Bridges Foundation.

The work Bridges began is not done. With Gov. Kim Reynolds currently pushing for tax-funded private school vouchers in Iowa, it’s important to remember that many U.S. private schools were formed by white Americans to avoid integration.

By saying no to private school vouchers across the country, we say no to biased school admittance on race, religion, sexuality, and other protected classes. To achieve equity in education, we must remember that the intentions of 1960s segregationists live on today and work to halt any legislation that may make school admissions less equitable.

Shahab Khan, Opinions Columnist

W.E.B Du Bois

It’s impossible to characterize how impactful the writings of W.E.B Du Bois were on the civil rights movement and the field of sociology.

His analysis of racial discrimination in early 20th century America pioneered many of the empirical techniques that academics in the humanities use today when they conduct research. Furthermore, his argument that the horrors of slavery have created a legacy of systemic racism against Black Americans dispelled many of the racist myths white academics had created in order to justify exploitation and oppression.

Additionally, his championing of Pan-Africanism is something that we can all admire as he worked to help Black Americans reclaim an identity that was ripped from them by the evils of slavery.

Finally, his socialism was intellectually coherent and pragmatic as it served as the underpinning for his revolutionary agenda. An agenda which was adopted in the various Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s.

While the goals of his life have not been fully realized, his vision of a more inclusive society where economic and social injustice is not ingrained into our society is still worth fighting for. 

Samuel Knupp, Opinions Contributor

Hank Aaron

Hank Aaron is one of the greatest hitters of all time. His 755 career home runs put him second on the all-time list, only behind Barry Bonds, who broke Aaron’s record in 2007.

While Aaron is widely regarded as one of the titans of baseball, some people aren’t aware of the hatred and racism he had to face for his entire life. Growing up in Mobile, Alabama, in the 1930s and 1940s, Aaron said the Ku Klux Klan would regularly march down his street while burning a cross, prompting his mother to tell him to hide under his bed.

Aaron’s powerful bat, along with his stellar ability in the outfield, earned him 21 all-star game selections, more than anyone else in MLB history.

In the 1970s, when Aaron was reaching the twilight of his career, it became clear that the outfielder had a real chance of breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record of 714. Because of this, combined with the fact that Aaron was black, the outfielder regularly received hate mail and death threats throughout the 1973 and 1974 seasons.

Nevertheless, Aaron persisted. On April 8, 1974, Aaron broke Ruth’s record hitting his 715th home run off Al Downing of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.