BLACK HISTORY MONTH

100 High-Profile Black People Who Impacted My Life

Many are icons across several industries

Black History Month is a badge of honor for many African Americans, myself included. I usually make good-natured jokes about Black stereotypes when the month rolls around, but I’ve always been proud of my ethnicity.

Because today is the first day of “our month,” I have developed a list of 100 high-profile Black individuals who have influenced or impacted me in some way.

I listed them according to their field or industry.

Professional Athletes

  • Michael Jordan: The NBA icon, team owner, and business executive has captivated me since I was 13 years old. His relentless competitive nature, elite skills, and showmanship on the basketball court are forever embedded in my mind.
  • O.J. Simpson: I know the guy is probably a shameless killer, but he was a true hero as an NFL superstar. Before “The Juice” sliced necks, he broke barriers and made his ethnicity an afterthought as he became a product endorser and low-budget actor. Oh — and he likes white women!
  • Magic Johnson: Legendary basketball genius who I loved watching play the game. He became the ultimate businessman after his retirement.
  • LeBron James: Incomparable size, strength, and skill have earned LeBron the remarkable career that he continues to have. I admire his social activism even more than his unbelievable discipline as an elite athlete.
  • Muhammad Ali: As a young and cocky force of nature, Ali was simply Cassius Clay. But his towering charisma and excellence in the boxing ring paled in comparison to the courage and sacrifice he displayed in taking on social issues.
  • Bill Russell: His 11 NBA championships are amazing. But Russell’s character will forever be his most endearing quality.
  • Kareem Abdul Jabbar: Maybe the greatest center in NBA history and almost certainly the greatest college player ever. But Kareem remains a thought-provoking intellect that just happens to be over seven feet tall!
  • Mike Tyson: I’ve never seen a famous person as brutally honest about their fuckups the way Tyson is. At his peak, he was “the most feared man on the planet.” These days, he has reinvented himself and he’s pretty damn entertaining — and wise!
  • Floyd Mayweather: The money. The flashiness. The money. The swag — and of course, the money! I love that “Money Mayweather” lives on his terms and doesn’t care about our opinions. A 50–0 boxing record earned him that luxury.
  • Kobe Bryant: The drive and the will to eclipse Jordan ended up building an enormous legacy for the legendary athlete. His tragically abbreviated post-career might’ve exceeded his 20 years in the NBA. He immersed himself in writing, creating, and being an advocate for women’s basketball. He even won an Academy award and of course, was the ultimate “girl dad.”
  • Stephen Curry: Love watching this 3-point flame thrower play basketball!
  • Shaquille O’Neal: There will never be a more entertaining personality than the one Shaq blessed us with. His game was all-power, but his sense of humor is what I loved.
  • Dennis Rodman: The ultimate sideshow also happened to be the hardest worker. Rodman reinvented himself after he left the Detroit Pistons. He became a self-promotional genius and re-defined the term “unique.”
  • Charles Barkley: Superstar on the court and a walking controversy off it. Sir Charles is a favorite of mine because he is unafraid of speaking the dirty truth about anything and anyone. We need more of that in this world.
  • Scottie Pippen: MJ has always given Scottie his props for helping him do the heavy lifting during six championship seasons. But when Mike retired prior to the 1993–94 season, I was awestruck at Pip’s leadership and skill while leading the Chicago Bulls in damn near every statistical category!
  • Tracy McGrady: When “T-Mac” became an Orlando Magic player in 2000–01, I didn’t expect him to dazzle and amaze while bullying the whole NBA! But he did, and in the process, earned my respect. True greatness.
  • Allen Iverson: Some people forget, or weren’t old enough to witness Iverson in his early NBA years. He was considered a controversial figure because of his “street” aesthetic; with cornrows in his hair and tattoos everywhere. But to me, A.I. was a visionary — and a kickass superstar!
  • Bo Jackson: In middle school, the famous “Bo Knows” television commercials were everywhere! I didn’t even care about baseball or football, but Bo was so popular and spectacular at the time, he was inescapable. I salute him for that level of excellence.

Musicians/Entertainers

  • Michael Jackson: The greatest entertainer in history is this man. MJ was everything to me from childhood into adulthood. His peerless skillset as an outstanding singer/songwriter was matched by his mesmerizing dance moves. Yes, he won tons of awards, broke records artistically and philanthropically. But his fascinating uniqueness caught my attention and never let it go. That’s why Michael holds the biggest impact on me to this day.
  • Tupac Shakur: The fire and passion in his voice articulated a conviction to his message that probably hasn’t been matched by any hip-hop artist since. ‘Pac’s enigmatic persona has been well documented, but I am unsure if it’s ever been analyzed in depth. It needs to be.
  • The Notorious B.I.G.: A master storyteller and an elite lyricist. Biggie could have evolved into a brilliant businessman with the hustle that he possessed. But the tragedy of his demise at age 24 robbed us all of witnessing more of his genius.
  • Prince: Because the “Pride of Minneapolis” was Michael Jackson’s chief rival, it was a conflict of interest for me to fawn over “His Purple Majesty” during his prime. But Prince possessed an eye-popping set of gifts that made his artistic output possible. Aside from the seminal career he authored, Prince was a provocateur and presented himself with erotic energy that made him so damn interesting to me.
  • Janet Jackson: The only Jackson besides Mike that became a living legend. And she’s still sexy!
  • Smokey Robinson: The pride of Motown Records during its early days and always a remarkable singer-songwriter. Hit record after hit record.
  • Whitney Houston: I am in love with Whitney's 1980’s work, though her brilliance lasted long after that.
  • Marvin Gaye: If there is a more sensual song than “Sexual Healing,” I have never heard it.
  • R. Kelly: He is clearly a shameless pervert with teen girls, but his phenomenal discography will forever be a masterpiece.
  • Mariah Carey: Her sing-songy tracks have always made me feel good. In the 1990s, Mariah was a walking hit record.
  • Beyoncé Knowles: Aside from being a classic beauty, Beyonce has become a cultural icon. She is distinctive and creative with her work, and that always earns admiration from me.
  • Sammy Davis Jr.: One of the pioneers who paved the way for a generation of legends. That alone speaks volumes about him.
  • Anita Baker: My mom listened to her all the time when I was a kid. It got me hooked on her incredible singing voice.
  • Alicia Keys: A brilliant instrumentalist and outstanding vocalist. And she makes hits that can pull emotion out of almost anyone.
  • Diana Ross: A true legend who helped the development of a preteen Michael Jackson. I’ve always enjoyed her groundbreaking achievements during her Motown days.
  • Aretha Franklin: One of the greatest voices you and I will ever hear.
  • Patti LaBelle: I always have to think which one Patti is because I always get her mixed up with Aretha. But she is an amazing singer.
  • Stevie Wonder: The level of genius that it takes to craft the classic albums of his 1970s peak is unimaginable. Stevie might be the greatest songwriter of the 20th century. If not, he’s close.
  • James Brown: “The Godfather of Soul” was a remarkable showman and during his peak, his dancing skills were off the charts.
  • Ice Cube: During an era when I didn’t care for hardcore rap music, Cube broke through my resistance with songs I loved: “Steady Mobbin” and “It Was a Good Day.”

Comedians/Comic Actors

  • Bill Cosby: He might be a disgrace now, but Cosby was a pioneer and an important figure for the Black community. The Cosby Show dominated my childhood because it was a phenomenon.
  • Eddie Murphy: From the moment I first saw Eddie on Saturday Night Live, I developed the habit of laughing even before he opened his mouth. He was funny as hell! Because he used profanity like most people use their toothbrush, I had to sneak to watch his standup comedy films. Next to Michael Jackson, no public figure mattered to me more than Eddie Murphy in the 1980s.
  • Richard Pryor: A genius at weaving his pain and destructive habits into comedic gold. During his standup, it was unclear if we should’ve felt sorry for him or laugh our ass off!
  • Dave Chappelle: Possibly the most intellectual comedian in the game. Chappelle is peerless when making observations about subtle inequalities in the world and forming them into masterful comedy routines. He somehow does it without ever sounding preachy or victimized. Legend!
  • Arsenio Hall: I was obsessed with his late-night talk show from 1989–94. I looked forward to it every day and sacrificed valuable sleep to tune in at 1 AM. That was crazy for a preteen who was still in grade school!
  • Kevin Hart: The world’s most popular comedian happens to be the most driven-to-up-his game-the-next-time comic I’ve ever seen. Kevin is flawless on stage, but his ambition and relentless work ethic greatly inspire me.
  • Chris Rock: One of my favorite comedians of all time. His voice, delivery, and brutal honesty are all pitch-perfect. Nonstop laughs.
  • Redd Foxx: I will always love “Fred Sanford” from Sanford and Son!
  • Kenan Thompson: The SNL sketches that feature him are almost always hilarious because of him. And he’s in his 18th season on the show!
  • Steve Harvey: This is a guy who is everywhere in the entertainment business and that alone makes him a huge inspiration.
  • Martin Lawrence: I didn’t watch his popular television series during its original run. But in later years, I couldn’t stop laughing any time I watched Martin. That shit is hilarious.
  • Shawn Wayans: To me, he will always be SW1 from In Living Color.
  • Damon Wayans: He will always be the guy that is friends with Michael Jordan. And of course, “Homey the Clown” from In Living Color.
  • Marlon Wayans: To me, Marlon will forever be the object of Terry Crews’ desire in the film, White Chicks.
  • Robert Guillaume: The super funny character “Benson” from the television series of the same name was only funny because of this guy’s amazing comedic skills!

Actors/Actresses

  • Will Smith: From the hilarious rapper of the late ’80s and early 90s to the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to a global film star, Will is one of the biggest inspirations of my life.
  • Shavar Ross: From Arnold Jackson’s best friend on the television series Diff’rent Strokes to an enormous variety of acting gigs and entrepreneurial pursuits, Shavar has personally inspired me with his resilience and tenacity — for decades.
  • Gary Coleman: I loved Gary as “Arnold Jackson” in the 1980s. I even had a poster of him on my bedroom wall!
  • Denzel Washington: Possibly the greatest actor I’ve ever seen. Denzel “becomes” each character he portrays and it’s almost always a masterpiece performance. Training Day is maybe my favorite film of all time!
  • Cicely Tyson: One of the original pioneers in the film industry for Blacks. She paved the way for countless people with her strength and resilience.
  • Sherman Hemsley: “George Jefferson” is one of the most hilarious television characters in history.
  • John Amos: As “James Evans” on TV’s Good Times, I was terrified every time he raised his damn voice.
  • James Earl Jones: The booming voice he possesses is just one of his signature gifts. He’s one hell of an actor and I loved him in the film Coming to America.
  • LaWanda Page: “Aunt Ester” from TV’s Sanford and Son. “Watch it, Sucka!” will always be one of the best catchphrases.
  • Esther Rolle: “Florida Evans” from TV’s Good Times. She was also a highly accomplished actress with a long career.
  • Ja’Net DuBois: “Willona Woods” from TV’s Good Times, as well as the voice of The Jeffersons iconic theme song. She was snappy and sexy in her role as “Florida Evans’” friend.
  • Marla Gibbs: The smart-mouthed maid “Florence” from The Jeffersons as well as “Mary” from the television series, 227.
  • Danny Glover: Loved him in The Color Purple and Lethal Weapon.
  • Sidney Poitier: During his long and storied career, he shattered stereotypes and paved the way for numerous actors.
  • Ruby Dee: Loved her as “Mother-Sister” in Do the Right Thing as well as Frank Lucas’ mother in American Gangster.
  • Jamie Foxx: He caught my attention as “Wanda” on TV’s In Living Color. But once he became a singer, songwriter, comedian, and film star, he made me understand that all possible things are possible for whoever decides to go after it.

Business Moguls/Entrepreneurs

  • Oprah Winfrey: Her super-popular talk show brought her to my attention in the mid-1980s, and her ever-expanding business acumen since has blown my mind.
  • Bishop T.D. Jakes: His book Destiny is one of the best and most inspiring reads I’ve ever experienced.
  • Diddy: His dedication to becoming a massive success has impressed me for many years.
  • JAY-Z: The fact that I listed the hip-hop legend in this category speaks volumes about his constant evolution. It’s possible that Jay’s astounding success in business has eclipsed his record-setting achievements in the music industry. Just wow.
  • Dr. Dre: This generation’s Quincy Jones. Dre parlayed his significant success in music production to enter into an insanely lucrative partnership with Apple. Jaw-dropping.
  • Snoop Dogg: Gangsta rapper turned family-friendly celebrity personality. And his voice is still smooth as hell.
  • 50 Cent: The greatest debut album in the history of hip-hop.
  • Tyler Perry: A mind-blowing rise from poverty to the ranks of the billionaire elite. But I am most impressed with Tyler’s acquisition of land and subsequent building of the first-ever Black-owned film studio. He is the ultimate inspiration.
  • Don King: The master (and sometimes unscrupulous) promoter of himself and others. My sixth-grade teacher told my mom that I was going to follow in his footsteps.
  • Quincy Jones: A lifetime of unbelievable accomplishments. From working with Sinatra and Ray Charles in the 1950s and 60s to producing Michael Jackson’s legendary Thriller album, Quincy has done it all. He even brought Oprah to the attention of the world when she was mostly unknown, and later made Will Smith a TV star! A life well-lived.
  • Berry Gordy: The founder of the amazing Motown Records. Gordy had a near-flawless eye for talent and brought some of the biggest names in music history to the attention of the American public.
  • Russell Simmons: Serial entrepreneur and womanizer, but one of the most important figures in the development of hip-hop.
  • John H. Johnson: Founder of Ebony and Jet magazine.
  • Daymond John: FUBU founder and current “Shark” on TV’s Shark Tank.
  • Les Brown: Hilarious motivational speaker.
  • Don Cornelius: The creator and longtime host of the television series Soul Train, a cultural phenomenon in the Black community.

Political Figures/Leaders/Activists

  • Martin Luther King, Jr.: The greatest civil rights activist in history.
  • Barack Obama: The 44th U.S. president and the first Black man to ever hold office. I love Obama’s wit, sense of humor, and character.
  • Nelson Mandela: Wrongly imprisoned for 27 years, and was released with zero bitterness. Mandela was a beacon of inspiration all around the world.
  • Michelle Obama: The First Lady of the U.S. from 2009 to 2017 and President Obama’s wife. I admire her commitment to positive things; health, and fitness initiatives, her phenomenal book Becoming and so much more. She is a true inspiration.
  • Rev. Al Sharpton: It’s not only the fact that he was friends with Michael Jackson for decades, but he also lost almost 200 pounds! He is also a very active entrepreneur and exercises religiously early every morning.
  • Jesse Jackson: He has been present for almost every important “Black event” for decades! That counts for a lot.
  • Coretta Scott King: The incredible wife of Dr. King who ensured that his legacy was carried on properly after his assassination.
  • Harry Belafonte: He has always been an important part of key things for the Black community, but he caught my attention in 1985 when he was connected to “USA for Africa.”
  • Dick Gregory: Comedian, activist, and entrepreneur, I learned about him as a teenager when he promoted his weight loss products on television.

Scholars/Poets/Writers

  • Toni Morrison: Phenomenal writer and thinker. I wish I had paid attention to her much earlier.
  • James Baldwin: I just began learning about this great writer in recent years, and it is obvious that his ideas and perspectives were ahead of his time.
  • Maya Angelou: She spoke and wrote poetry beautifully. She had such a presence, something that comes from a wealth of life experiences.
  • Michael Eric Dyson: I learn several new words every time I hear this guy talk. He is incredibly proficient at speaking and I would love to meet him.

Filmmakers

  • Spike Lee: Thought-provoking filmmaker of several of my favorite flicks. He also co-starred with Jordan in the iconic “Air Jordan” television ads of the late 80s and early 90s.
  • Keenan Ivory Wayans: He is the leader of the most hilarious Black family in the history of comedy.

In Closing

I know that we as Black individuals should be grateful for the month we’ve been given. But it sometimes feels like a token gesture put in place to appease a race that has historically been pushed around.

Either way, I appreciate the “gesture” and I’ll be “Black and Proud” for all 12 months. Not just the shortest one!

Personal Development Writer | Deante Unlimited podcast, Host | Deante: Under Construction web series, Star | Deante Young Enterprises, Chief Creative Architect

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