Looking Back at Black History Month: The Searchlight Staff’s Most Influential Black Figures

This February, Searchlight staff members selected their picks for the most influential Black artists and figures. Read below to see the selections and recommendations for their work.

Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou (Photo/ Biography)

Top Pick: “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”

Maya Angelou is a criminally amazing writer that encapsulates raw human emotions in her writing that is truly unparalleled. Her direct, honest writing draws in readers. Her prose writing in her six popular autobiographical novels, including “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” combines the honest telling of one’s life through autobiography with the connection to larger themes present in literary fiction. Her writing often feels like a hand extending through the pages of her books and poems that serves to comfort her readers.

– Sahithi Ajjarapu, Staff Writer

Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (Photo/ NPR)

Top Picks: “Stardust,” “Hollywood Africans”

Jean-Michel Basquiat was a groundbreaking black artist who addressed many social issues through his work. Basquiat is considered a pioneer in street art and a large reason for the popularity of street art in modern culture. Basquiat was a leader of the 1980s neo-expressionist movement, alongside Keith Haring. His art remains relevant to this day, with works selling for hundreds of millions and on display in museums around the world. His works have addressed police brutality, civil rights, capitalism, and have highlighted historical black figures. Basquiat himself experienced racism in his upbringing and his adult life producing art. Despite his early death, his work has influenced countless modern artists.

– Toby Moses, Sports Editor

Viola Davis

Viola Davis (Photo/ Vanity Fair)

Top Pick: “How to Get Away with Murder”

Now one of the few EGOT winners, Viola Davis has been recognized for her controlled and moving performances in dozens of films. She has contributed to the film and acting industry since 1996, some of her most influential performances being “The Woman King” and “Fences.” With groundbreaking productions about civil rights, Davis is marked as one of the most admirable and distinguished Black actresses in the modern era, continuously surpassing a deserved recognition of “Best Actress in Leading Roles”

– Ciara Foley, A&E Editor

Larry Doby

Larry Doby (Photo/Getty Images)

Top Pick: Negro League Baseball Museum

Often under-appreciated due to being the second Black Major League Baseball player integrated behind Jackie Robinson, Doby finished his illustrious career as a 9X All-Star and won two World Series in the 1940s for the then-named Cleveland Indians. Doby opened the door for other black athletes to play in all leagues of sports when joining the American League of MLB, the first black player ever to play in that league. Doby endured the pain of being a pioneer with honor and dignity that allowed for many generations of black athletes to come after him in Major League Baseball.

– Max Grant, Staff Writer

Amanda Gorman

Amanda Gorman (Photo/ New York Times)

Top Picks: “The Hill We Climb,” “Call Us What We Carry”

At age 24, Amanda Gorman’s poetry has extreme depth, as some of her more famous pieces revolve around activism and finding union within American. She has written numerous famous poems and poetry books, and was the first person ever to receive the National Youth Poet Laureate. Her poetry focuses on giving a voice to marginalized peoples within the United States as well as uniting forces against continued oppression of these groups. Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet to ever present, as she presented “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration in Jan. of 2021. Not only did she present at the inauguration, but she is the first ever poet to present at the Super Bowl.

– Sophia Brownsword, Editor-in-Chief

Whitney Houston

Whitney Houston (Photo/ Glamour)

Top Pick: “How Will I Know”

Whitney Houston was known to be a notable singer and actress during the 1980s. She was inspiring to others and would always fight for racial equality. Her music can be described as powerful pieces where she would express her raw human emotions. Throughout her career, she was often known as “The Voice” because she had over 200 million records sold worldwide. Her music that she created was monumental to the whole music industry as she inspired many young artists. Even though she passed away at an early age, she still continues to inspires people everyday through her work.

– Emily Sullivan, Staff Writer

Etta James

Etta James (Photo/ Essence)

Top Pick: “A Sunday Kind of Love”

Etta James has been known as a gospel prodigy since she was five years old. By the late 1950’s, James left her hometown to record her single, “The Wallflower” kicking off her musical career. James’s style of music brought attention to music that used to have a largely black audience. From the blues to rock and roll to gospel, James not only made African-American-styled music popular, she also bridged the racial gap between music genres. Still, James is considered to have the most dynamic music.

– Gianna Pompeo, Staff Writer

Jamaica Kincaid

Jamaica Kincaid (Photo/ Bob Anderson)

Top Pick: “Girl”

Jamaica Kincaid, an Antiguan-American author, has helped paved the way of embracing cultures within fictional literature. In her semi-autobiographical novel, “Lucy,” Kincaid documents her own life growing up and later fleeing her Caribbean home. Kincaid is arguably best known for her short story, “Girl,” where she writes about a mother who shares moral and cultural advice with her daughter. As seen in “Girl,” Kincaid shares the complexities of her culture through a simple and unique style.

– Grace Ryan, News Editor

Steve Lacy

Steve Lacy (Photo/ GQ)

Top Pick: “Dark Red”

The 24-year-old artist blew up tremendously after the release of his hit song “Bad Habit” that climbed all of the way to the Billboards Top 100 back in the summer. The new and upcoming R&B and indie-rock music producer has recently been completely selling out venues and gaining high support for his new album, “Gemini Rights.” Steve Lacy has taken the music industry by storm and continues to set the bar for all new and upcoming artists.

– Nicole Scotton, Staff Writer

Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison (Photo/ Princeton)

Top Pick: “Beloved”

There is truly no one who can write like Toni Morrison; her writing is as beautiful as it is brutal, and her novels are somehow both perfect and experimental. Her commitment to centering black stories in her writing and refusal to engage with the white gaze proved that the power in storytelling comes from its singularity, not its relatability.

– Ms. Ferguson, Adviser

Sheryl Lee Ralph

Sheryl Lee Ralph (Photo/ People)

Top Pick: “Abbott Elementary”

Sheryl Lee Ralph just came off an amazing performance, being the first black woman to sing the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the Super Bowl. She won an Emmy as best supporting actress for her huge role in “Abbott Elementary.” The show also won a Golden Globe and is gaining huge popularity as each episode airs weekly. Her first acting opportunity was on Broadway as she appeared in “Dreamgirls”.

– Alexa Dayaa, Staff Writer

Octavia Spencer

Octavia Spencer (Photo/ Wikimedia)

Top Pick: “Hidden Figures”

Octavia Spencer is known for her amazing acting skills as she is the first black actress to recieve two consecutive Oscar Nominations. Spencer gave an especially special performance portraying an African American women working at NASA who is discriminated against due to her skin color in the movie “Hidden Figures.” The movie has won many awards as Spencer portrayed an influential point of view of how African American people were treated, leaving the audience with a whole new perspective due to her breathtaking acting skills.

– Sophie Murray, Staff Writer

Angie Thomas

Angie Thomas (Photo/ Angie Thomas)

Top Pick: “The Hate U Give”

Novelist Angie Thomas started her renowned book “The Hate U Give”  as a senior in college. Quickly after publishing in 2017, the novel became #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The story was also produced as a film, based off of a real life event which happened in 2009; Oscar Grant of Oakland was an unarmed black man who was shot by police officers. Within her novel and the film, Thomas places significant emphasis on the systemic racism within schools, and the stereotype around black people and violence. Through passion and influence, Thomas uses her novel to expose police brutality and discrimination against Black Americans

– Skippy O’Connell, Editor-in-Chief

Alice Walker

Alice Walker (Photo/ Britannica)

Top Pick: “The Color Purple”

Best known for her gut-wrenching novel “The Color Purple,” author and activist Alice Walker enriches literature through her complex characters such as queer Black American women and Black American mothers. Walker travels the world to observe and experience the lives of oppressed, abused, and poor Black Americans to inspire her writing and shed light on the tumultuous journeys they often face.

– Kristyn Dentremont, Editor-in-Chief

Preslaysa Williams

Preslaysa Williams (Photo/ Audible)

Top Pick: “A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal”

In her book “A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal,” Preslaysa Williams tells the fiction story of a couple, Jaslene and Marcus, who ended their engagement on the day of their wedding, the same day main character Jaslene’s sister died in a tragic accident. The reconnection and continuous encounters of the couple at an African American history museum ties in Williams Afro-Fillipina twist to her writing and overall story. Williams wrote this story as a way to create an entertaining story while still stressing the importance of remembering Black culture and struggles.

– Nikki Martin, Staff Writer

Serena Williams

Serena Williams (Photo/ Getty Images)

Top Pick: “A Sweet Lowcountry Proposal”

After a huge and extremely successful career for herself, Serena Williams retired in September of 2022. She is known and loved by many as one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. Williams has left a major influence on young Black girls, and continues to leave a huge mark on many young athletes, giving them the hopes and mindsets that they have the ability to make it just as far as she did, no matter who they are or where they started.

– Violet Burgess, Staff Writer

Stevie Wonder

Stevie Wonder (Photo/ Wikipedia)

Top Pick: “Isn’t She Lovely”

Stevie Wonder, real name Steveland Hardaway Morris, is credited as a musical pioneer and influence across multiple genres. His use of electronic musical instruments in the 70s reshaped R&B music as a whole. He was a child prodigy who, at 11 years old, was signed with Motown’s Tamla label and given the name “Little Stevie Wonder”.

– Erin Malinn, Feature Editor