Thirty years ago today, Nelson Mandela was released after 27 years of imprisonment by the South African apartheid regime. Just four years after his release Mandela was elected president and led South Africa out of decades of enforced segregation and discrimination. February is also Black History Month in the United States, an important time to reflect on the incredible people and the inspiring, yet often tragic events of the African diaspora.
As the culture and contributions of the African and pan-African communities take centre stage, we asked the team at Platform to tell us about the black people they most admire and look up to. Here’s what they came up with:
Beth Clark: Karamo Brown
Coined as the ‘Culture’ expert on Netflix’s Queer Eye – a series about advising people in need of lifestyle makeovers – Karamo Brown, as a black, gay man, is an inspiration to many.
Brought up in Florida in a Christian household, Karamo was surrounded by “homophobic tendencies” rooted in his family’s Caribbean background. Karamo attributes his success today to the challenges he has faced – such as being a single parent, as well as facing racism, and homophobia – and how he was able to overcome these. Today, Queer Eye is watched by millions of fans on Netflix, and Karamo is a public figure determined to spread positivity and acceptance.
Karamo is my black history month hero for bringing a truly positive force to be reckoned with!
To quote the hero himself, “Failure isn’t the opposite of success, it’s part of it.” – what’s more inspiring than that?
David Bramley: Muhammed Ali
I had a really hard choice between Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens. Rubbing Hitler’s nose in it at the 1936 Berlin Olympics means he has always been a huge hero of mine. I also admired (and very briefly met) Gary Sobers, the first cricketer to hit every ball of an over for six.
But I’ve just got to choose Muhammed Ali; as he made the most impact on me and my generation. He is undeniably the pre-eminent sportsman of the 1970s but also one of the most famous people on the planet. Not bad for a black man born into a Kentucky that still observed racist Jim Crow laws.
My admiration is fired by the knowledge that his fame was about so much more than being the best – and most stylish – boxer in the world. He had a huge impact in politics due to his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war, making him a key figure in the counterculture and civil rights movement of the 60s and 70s. I’m afraid that back then, it was common belief that black people were less intelligent than white people. Anyone watching Ali’s TV appearances with his quick wit and clear intelligence made it harder for them to hold onto this delusional belief. When I think of the black people that affected me during my early life, it’s noticeable that the choices – Gary Sobers, Muhammed Ali and Jesse Owens – were all sportspeople. I couldn’t be happier that people growing up today will be able to choose their black heroes from every walk of life.
David Lawrence: Colin Dale
Colin Dale had a radio show on Kiss FM in the early 90s called “Abstrakt Dance.” It featured all the latest music from pioneers including Kevin Saunderson, Derrick May and Carl Craig. As a suburban indie kid, it literally sounded like the future to me and I was hooked. House music brought people together from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Crowds were definitely far more diverse than the average indie rock concert at the time. What Colin, and many others like him, did was to turn people on to music that broke down barriers. Maybe we could all do with a bit more of the energy and spirit of Abstrakt Dance today.
Esme Horwood: Sheku Kanneh-Mason
My most inspirational black person is cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who in 2016 aged 16, was the first black person to win the BBC Young Musician since it launched in 1978. As a classical string player myself, it is obvious that there is a disproportionate representation of black people within the classical music community, and Sheku’s talent has broken enormous boundaries. Aside from playing at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding and winning an impressive number of awards, Sheku’s second album, which was released this year, reached No. 8 in the UK official album chart and made him the first cellist in history to reach the UK top 10. Sheku is an inspiration to all aspiring young musicians from all backgrounds.
Eugene Afanasy: Thomas-Alexandre Dumas
From a young age, Alexandre Dumas’ novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo have held a special place in my heart. Yet, not many people are aware that the French author was the grandson of a Haitian slave. Fewer still are aware that the writer’s father, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, who was also born into slavery, stands as one of the highest-ranking men of African descent to ever lead a European army.
Thomas-Alexandre joined the French army as a private during the French Revolution, with the aim of bringing liberté and égalité to all. Dumas served with Napoleon Bonaparte who admired his bravery and appreciated his military expertise. He rose through the ranks and was the first person of colour to become a general of a French army.
However, despite his success, the issue of racism had never escaped him. On return from Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, Thomas-Alexander was taken prisoner in Italy and Napoleon’s high command refused to ransom him. When he was eventually freed more than two years later, he returned to a France he did not recognise. Napoleon was preparing to re-establish slavery in the colonies and black officers were being expulsed from the military. Thomas-Alexander was not awarded the payment in arrears that was promised and died in obscure poverty. His son was three years old at the time of his death.
It puzzles me that despite the countless Napoleonic-era monuments scattered across France, there is still nothing commemorating the life of General Dumas. Yet, his life story has inspired the beloved characters of his son’s most famous novels.
Freddie Weiss: James Baldwin
James Baldwin is one of the most important black writers of the twentieth century whose essays, novels and political and social activism drove some of the most important and ground-breaking conversations of his day. He is a huge inspiration of mine due to his commitment to changing societal attitudes towards race and sexuality at a time when racism and homophobia were rife in North America. Baldwin was seen as an outsider for most of his life, being both black and gay, yet he used this ‘outsider’ perspective as a main source of inspiration for his writing. His novels and essays were some of the most controversial yet important of his time, exposing racial and social injustices in the US during the 50’s and 60’s. Luckily his work was very well received and led to him becoming one of the leading voices in the Civil Rights Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement, campaigning alongside iconic black figures including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Maya Angelou. Through his work, you can get a pretty good understanding of what life was like in twentieth century North America for black communities and has earned him a very respectable legacy.
Gay Bell: Nelson Mandela
I grew up in Sheffield, a pretty multi-cultural city, aware that apartheid existed in South Africa. As I became a more politically aware teenager, I (along with many others) became outraged by this injustice and about the plight of Nelson Mandela, the South African anti-apartheid campaigner. I attended a number of anti-apartheid rallies and The Specials, Free Nelson Mandela, was part of the soundtrack of our youth.
Mandela was arrested and imprisoned in 1962 and sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to overthrow the state. On February 11 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from jail after 27 years behind bars, much of it in isolation, and the world watched him on TV on his ‘walk to freedom’.
As President of South Africa (1994 to 1999) he became a world statesman, and championed equality and justice. He was a strong believer in women’s empowerment, quality education for all, and the fight against HIV/AIDS.
“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Mandela famously said. He spread education across the country and into rural areas where poor, black kids had not had access to learning.
During his life Nelson Mandela received hundreds of honours – including the Nobel Peace Prize. Widely regarded as an icon of democracy and social justice, his legacy continues to inspire people around the world. He is a guiding light for humanity.
James Michael-Holmes: Jesse Owens
Sport is full of hyperbole. ‘Miracles.’ ‘Unbelievable moments.’ ‘Battle cries.’ ‘Entering lions’ dens.’ Yet in 1936, Jesse Owens competed as a black man in one of the most hostile, intimidating and frankly terrifying sporting arenas imaginable – the Berlin Olympic Stadium, at the height of Nazi Germany dictatorship and the growing wave of antisemitic and racist laws that continue to horrify the world today. The description of this sporting story cannot be over-exaggerated.
So, for Owens to sweep up four gold medals (100m, 200m, 4x100m relay and long jump) – and to set three world records in the process – was nothing short of remarkable. He unravelled the myth of Aryan racial superiority in spectacular fashion, even winning the acclaim of the Berlin crowd. Except Hitler himself, of course, who famously stormed out of the stadium to avoid the embarrassment of recognising Owens.
For me, however, Owens’ greatest success was making the starting line in the first place. After all, he was the son of a sharecropper and the grandson of a slave. Yes, he famously attended Ohio State University, setting a number of world records over a period of two years. But his sporting prowess did not afford him a scholarship; he was forced to work part-time jobs to fund his university education and support his young family. Within that time, he was forced off campus with other African-American athletes, eating at ‘blacks-only’ restaurants and living at ‘blacks-only’ hotels. He never experienced an even playing field.
Despite his astonishing accomplishments, the sobering reality of being an African American in 1930s United States was underlined at the 1936 Manhattan ticker-tape victory parade. In order to attend the evening reception held in his honour, Owens was forced to travel up a freight elevator as he was not allowed to enter via the main doors of the Waldorf Astoria on account of his race. Meanwhile, President Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t acknowledge Owens’ four-gold medal-haul at all.
Today, of course, his story is legendary (and a film!) As President Jimmy Carter later summarised upon Owens’ death in 1980: “Perhaps no athlete better symbolised the human struggle against tyranny, poverty and racial bigotry.”
Max Deeley: Nichelle Nichols
The geeks amongst you will know exactly who this is but others, perhaps not. Nichelle played Lt Uhura on the original series of Star Trek in the 60s and was one of the first black women featured in a major television series in a prominent role. She is perhaps most famous for being involved in the first televised interracial kiss, along with William Shatner. Martin Luther King Jr. described her character as a vital role model for black children and young women across the country, as well as for other children who would see blacks appearing as equals.
After her run on Star Trek, Nichols volunteered as part of a special project with NASA to recruit minority and female personnel for the space agency, leading to the recruitment of Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and United States Air Force Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, who in his own right probably deserve a place on this list!
Megan Kicks: Oprah Winfrey
Oprah Winfrey was the first name that pinged in my head when reflecting on inspirational people for Black History Month. Her story of growing up with a rough home life and transforming herself into North America’s first black multi-billionaire always fascinated me. When I was younger, her name was most correlated with her television show. Now, I admire her philanthropy work and constant strive to help young women across the world. Disadvantaged by her own childhood, Oprah opened up a school for women in South Africa to help girls grow into strong leaders. Her feminist actions and body positivity always resonated with me. I am truly inspired by the success Oprah Winfrey has achieved in her lifetime.
Paul Davies: Fela Kuti
Fela Kuti is one of the most culturally significant figures of the 20th Century. Born in Nigeria in 1938, Fela is credited with pioneering Afrobeat and his work is highly influential on other musicians to this day, including the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Damon Albarn (who is a regular collaborator with Fela’s drummer Tony Allen) and Brian Eno (who in turn had a huge influence on Bowie and Talking Heads).
But he is remembered for more than his music alone. Fela Kuti, aka “The Black President”, was a leading human rights activist who achieved legendary status across Africa for his high-profile anti-corruption stance. Things came to a head after the release of his seminal Zombie album in 1977, which resulted in the Nigerian army ransacking his commune, severely beating him and killing his mother. He responded by forming his own political party and continuing to call out the political establishment in his lyrics.
His bravery in standing up for what he believed in despite fierce establishment opposition endeared him to people across Africa. When he died in 1977 Lagos came to a standstill as over a million people attended his funeral. At the time of his death, he was viewed as a cult figure outside Africa but his influence has grown steadily since and his life and work was the subject of a hit Broadway show (produced by Jay-Z) some 40 years later.
His music still resonates and sounds as fresh as it did when it was made, and Fela Kuti’s story is one that will be re-told for many years to come.
PJ Chou: Harriet Tubman
Sometimes I wonder what the world will be like when all of us use more of our selfless heart rather than our selfish one. To give unconditionally and make sacrifices just for the betterment of others, it amazes me how much compassion our human heart is actually capable of, if that’s what we choose to manifest — just like the extraordinary life Harriet Tubman has lived. Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet endured years of physical labour and abuse until she successfully escaped to the North in 1849. She found freedom and safety for herself but she wanted that for others as well so instead of remaining in her newfound comfort, she chose to risk her life, again and again to return to Maryland to rescue her family and others via the Underground Railroad. Her selfless spirit and courageous actions inspire me because it encourages me to give more, do more and think about others more no matter who I meet or what I encounter.
Sebastian Alferez-Jones – Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali has always been a personal hero of mine, he showed me that the impossible was possible and inspired me to make each day count and get into the ring myself.
On pure talent alone Muhammad Ali is often considered to be one of the greatest ever to step foot in the squared circle and his victories over the likes of Sonny Liston, George Foreman and Joe Frazier are still considered to be some of the best matches of all time. But, it’s because of what he did outside the ring and his victories over social injustice that no one can stand toe to toe with him.
After creating what would be the template for the modern athlete. Ali sacrificed the peak years of his career after refusing to be drafted to the Vietnam war, an act that left him being convicted of draft evasion. But, it was acts such as this and his conviction to his principles that inspired countless to act in defiance of injustice, making him stand amongst the greatest figures of the 20th-century that fought for justice and forced an end to shameful oppression.
Muhammad Ali is someone who will continue to be an inspiration to future generations and has shown we can all be champions of life no matter what obstacle is placed in front of us.
Will Garside: John Wendell Thompson
There are many unsung heroes and in honour of black history month, I’d like to shine a light on John Wendell Thompson. They say, you should never meet your heroes, but luckily, I did, twice – with just a gap of a decade.
John Thompson worked his way up to become CEO of IBM America’s during a 28-year career before being poached in 1999 by Symantec, a security company, to become its CEO. As a young reporter at CEBIT (…think Germanic IT equivalent of NAB but 10 times the size!), I saw him give a presentation and afterwards, doorstepped him to ask a few questions while ducking PR minders. I threw him a few softball ones about his new role and then a cheeky one about the ongoing feud between Symantec and MacAfee; a question that most CEO’s should avoid answering. Instead, he gave me a passionate answer about the futility of wasting energies on unproductive combat, instead, his focus would be on making his company better. And he did. Symantec soared under his 13-year watch from a $600M to $6Bn a year business.
In 2012, I was invited to a luncheon by a PR agency for a new start-up – and sat next to me, was John Thompson; who was about to be announced as the new CEO. I recounted to him that we had met, but before I could provide the details, he said, “yes, at CEBIT” – just wow! I spent most of the luncheon talking to him about tech, life and race. His (paraphrased) view was that the journey is probably harder for people of colour. Yet, any obstacle could be used as fuel to become a better person, to work harder, to excel through ability, not ignoring discrimination – but channelling it as a positive force – and that is an ethos that I share.
In 2014, Thompson was appointed as chairman of Microsoft, succeeding Bill Gates. In 2018, he became a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, one of the most successful and culturally diverse VC’s in Silicon Valley. Along his journey, he has actively helped to support and promote several good causes including Npower, one of the largest free technology training programs for military veterans and young adults from underserved communities. John Thompson is now 70 and most people would not give him a second glance of recognition, but for me, he is a true industry icon.
Zoe Mumba: Lawrence Mumba
My most inspirational black person has had one of the most profound and positive influences on my life – my Dad. He grew up in rural Zambia, graduated from a UK university and forged a successful career at a UK bank which, from an early age, instilled the belief in me that you are the master of your own destiny. On a more personal note, my Dad has been an infinite source of support, love and guidance, from providing much needed maths tutoring (because I was always better at English!) to helping me move to London, and phoning me every week for a healthy (and sometimes heated!) debate on UK politics! My Dad has always been there; has always been my number one fan; and will always be my biggest inspiration.