Black History Month Reflections – Week 1

In celebration of Black History Month, President Mark Beggs is taking time each day in the month of February to highlight individuals who have made significant contributions to society. In introducing this project, Mark said, “[This is] a time to celebrate and reflect on those who have made an impact, large and small, on our culture and our shared history.”

This thoughtful way to honor Black History Month is something Mark does for our community each year, but this year is extra special because we are sharing that education with the public! Additionally, each person has “something else in common” — follow along each week and see if you can guess their commonality! The answer will be revealed on our Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday, March 1st.

This Week’s Features

Toni Morrison was an American novelist. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, was published in 1970. In this book, Morrison used multiple perspectives and a splintered narrative to examine the subjectivities of Black girls who struggle against, and sometimes submit to, the self-loathing that white beauty ideals would have them internalize. The critically acclaimed Song of Solomon (1977) brought her national attention and won the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1988, Morrison won the Pulitzer Prize for Beloved (1987); she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993. The committee described Morrison as an author “who in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.”

The National Endowment for the Humanities selected Morrison for the Jefferson Lecture, the U.S. federal government’s highest honor for achievement in the humanities, in 1996. She was honored with the National Book Foundation’s Medal of Distinguished Contribution to American Letters the same year. President Barack Obama presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom on May 29, 2012. She received the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2016. Morrison was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020.

Lorraine Hansberry was a playwright and writer. She was the first African-American female author to have a play performed on Broadway. Her best known work, the play A Raisin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans living under racial segregation in Chicago. The title of the play was taken from the poem “Harlem” by Langston Hughes: “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?”

Hansberry was also a civil rights activist who associated with the Communist Party of America and supported aggressive anti-racist action. When CBS correspondent Mike Wallace interviewed her during the run of A Raisin in the Sun, she asserted that Black people had a “great deal to be angry about … they are still lynching Negroes in America. I feel, as our African friends do, that we need to point toward the total liberation of the African people all over the world.”

Gwendolyn Brooks was an American poet, author, and teacher. Her work often dealt with the personal celebrations and struggles of ordinary people in her community. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry on May 1, 1950, for Annie Allen, making her the first African American to receive a Pulitzer Prize.

Throughout her prolific writing career, Brooks received many more honors. A lifelong resident of Chicago, she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois in 1968, a position she held until her death 32 years later. She was also named the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress for the 1985–86 term. In 1976, she became the first African-American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Maya Angelou was an American poet, memoirist, and civil rights activist. She published seven autobiographies, three books of essays, several books of poetry, and is credited with a list of plays, movies, and television shows spanning over 50 years. She received dozens of awards and more than 50 honorary degrees.[3] Angelou is best known for her series of seven autobiographies, which focus on her childhood and early adult experiences. The first, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969), tells of her life up to the age of 17 and brought her international recognition and acclaim.

She became a poet and writer after a string of odd jobs during her young adulthood. These included fry cook, sex worker, nightclub performer, Porgy and Bess cast member, Southern Christian Leadership Conference coordinator, and correspondent in Egypt and Ghana during the decolonization of Africa. She was also an actress, writer, director, and producer of plays, movies, and public television programs. In 1982, she was named the first Reynolds Professor of American Studies at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. She was active in the Civil Rights Movement and worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Beginning in the 1990s, she made approximately 80 appearances a year on the lecture circuit, something she continued into her eighties. In 1993, Angelou recited her poem “On the Pulse of Morning” (1993) at the first inauguration of Bill Clinton, making her the first poet to make an inaugural recitation since Robert Frost at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.

Malcolm X was an African-American Muslim minister and human rights activist.

Malcolm spent his adolescence living in a series of foster homes or with relatives after his father’s death and his mother’s hospitalization. He engaged in several illicit activities, eventually being sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1946 for larceny and breaking and entering. In prison he joined the Nation of Islam (adopting the name Malcolm X to symbolize his unknown African ancestral surname) and after his parole in 1952 quickly became one of the organization’s most influential leaders. He was the public face of the organization for a dozen years, advocating for black empowerment and separation of black and white Americans, and criticizing Martin Luther King Jr and the mainstream civil rights movement for its emphasis on nonviolence and racial integration. Malcolm X also expressed pride in some of the Nation’s social welfare achievements, such as its free drug rehabilitation program.

After disavowing the tactics and teachings of the Nation of Islam in 1964, Malcolm X continued working in support of civil rights.  Threatened by the Nation of Islam and under surveillance by the FBI, he was assassinated in New York City in 1965.