In addition to being a Facilitator with Thresholds, I spend a lot of my time raising awareness about African history to empower communities to learn more about their heritage and history. Throughout my formal education in France and later in the UK, I didn't see much representation in my textbooks and as a young adult, and I had to learn on my own about my culture, heritage and the contributions that Black people made in society. Time has changed and initiatives such as Black History Month or films such as Lumumba or Harriet have brought to the mainstream some of the stories and achievements of Black people.
Throughout October, we celebrate Black History month in the UK (celebrated in February in the USA) and the focus is on the achievements of Black people. I want to dedicate this blog post to the contributions and achievements of Black people and particularly to Black women trailblazers. I am a big believer that black history and culture should not be focused on a month but should be celebrated all year round, and feel it is important that we continue to highlight the work of those who came before us and on whose shoulders we stand today. History is vast and there are so many people to be celebrated. For this blog my focus will be on three women; these three women have a special place in my heart as each of them has been an inspiration and their life stories have impacted on how I lead my life. Not only have they made our world richer and fuller, but they also led their lives to the full, challenged the status quo, and were driven by creativity to overcome adversity.
The first woman I would like to honour is the singer and civil rights activist Miriam Makeba, dubbed as "Mama Africa". Many would have heard me refer to her many times as I really admire her for her charisma, boldness and courage to stand firm for something she believed in. She runs her life on her own terms and refused to conform by choosing to sing in any language she chose to from Xhosa to English, from Swahili to Portuguese and would perform barefoot on stage. For me, she also embodied the essence of the African woman and was the ambassador for Africa by always being proud of her roots and by wearing elegant and intricate traditional African clothing and wearing her hair natural. She has inspired what has been called the "Afro Look" when the "Black is Beautiful" movement was launched in the 1960s and has shown the world how to be proud of her African identity and heritage. As the first African woman to win a Grammy, not only has she used her gift of singing to lift her from her modest environment but she introduced African music to the West. Most importantly, she fearlessly stood up against apartheid and was a civil rights activist. Despite being forced to exile from South Africa and having her records banned, she continued to campaign for human rights and humanitarian causes. She remains distinctively the fearless voice of Africa and will continue to inspire generations to come.
The second woman I want to pay tribute to is writer, activist, educator, actress and dancer Dr. Maya Angelou. Her life is marked with perseverance, fearlessness and wisdom. She has been my inspiration because of her outstanding writing skills, her strong voice and her understanding of the human condition. Never afraid to speak her mind she was passionate about defending the voiceless. The pain she experienced from life experience she poured into her beautiful writing. I will always remember how deeply moved I was reading "Why the caged bird sings" for the first time. It taught me a great lesson about resilience facing life’s adversity and challenges with positivity with a powerful message that we can grow through our trials and tribulations. She showed us how to live unapologetically and authentically and to age gracefully. As her very own protégée, Oprah Winfrey, puts it perfectly "She moves through the world with unshakeable calm, confidence and fierce grace". Through her work, Dr. Maya Angelou has touched many lives and paved the way for others to find their voice in an authentic way. She encouraged us all to "be a blessing to somebody" and I am grateful to her for "always being a rainbow in our clouds".
Finally, I would also like to celebrate Surya Bonaly because her achievements are very often undervalued and forgotten. Growing up in Southern France, she provided me with some representation on the French television screen. I spent many hours watching ice skating competitions on TV and cheering her on. For me, Surya is what greatness looks like. Not only was she a role model to me being adopted like I was, but she stepped into a white space that wasn't built or ready for her. She was innovative and a breath of fresh in the sports world as her routine was far from boring and she didn't conform to the norms of what skating should look like. I was mesmerised by her courage and strength to face the racism from the industry and the press. She always took the criticisms with a smile, dignity and grace. She was three-time World silver medalist, five-time European champion and nine-time French national champion but I feel she deserved much more. Although judges penalised her for not fitting the standard, I still believe she deserved a gold medal and the title of World Champion for her performances. For her bravery, creativity and authenticity, Surya will always be a legend, a pioneer and an inspiration to me. She really showed that nothing is impossible. To this date, Surya remains the only figure skater ever to land a backflip on a single blade.
Before I close this post, I also wanted to also have a special mention to Henrietta Lacks, whose statue, created by artist Helen Wilson-Roe, was unveiled in Bristol last month. Henrietta died of cancer in 1951 and her cancer cells were harvested without her or her family's knowledge and permission and they were found to be the first living human cells ever surviving and multiplying outside the human body. Her cells have made a huge contribution to modern medicine and have been used in numerous scientific breakthroughs including the polio vaccine, IVF and continue to be used today in coronavirus research. Her contribution has been unrecognised for a long time but her legacy lives on. Her statue in Bristol has a significant meaning too as it is the first statue of a black woman created by a black woman in the UK. I am also very proud that three of my friends and colleagues from Black Women Let Loose Theatre, whom I am part of, performed at the unveiling of the statue in front of Henrietta's family.
Let the stories of these women be an inspiration to us all. No matter how difficult our circumstances are, remember the strengths of those women who came before us and broke barriers, change our society for the better and turned adversity into positivity. I am grateful to the multitude of black women who have paved the way for me but also for numerous other women and for generations to come. Who are you grateful for and who has inspired you?