In honor of Black History Month, I am looking back on African American greatness. More specifically, I’m detailing 5 examples of legendary Blacks who managed to achieve crossover appeal.
In a nation that’s always been disproportionately white (currently 76% of the population), reaching mainstream success and resonance as a black person is a staggering accomplishment.
I’ve listed them in no particular order, but they are all giants in their field and are among the most well-known people in history.
1. Bill Cosby
He’s a national embarrassment now, but once upon a time, the legendary comedian achieved crossover success with his sitcom, The Cosby Show. It made its debut in 1984, more than two decades after Bill rose to national prominence as a standup act.
The hit NBC series spent its first five seasons at #1 in the ratings and broke new ground in the genre. A sitcom juggernaut of that caliber is only possible when it earns significant viewership from white audiences.
Cosby oversaw all aspects of the show and insisted that it portray black folks as successful and well educated. This was unique because it eschewed the stereotypical “poverty-stricken” themes present on many other African-American sitcoms.
2. Oprah Winfrey
She’s been a billionaire mogul for many years, but in the 1980s, Oprah was just hitting her stride in show business. Her indelible daytime talk show, The Oprah Winfrey Show premiered nationally in 1986 and transformed its titular host into the voice of a generation.
Defying conventional wisdom, Oprah upending the more established Phil Donahue in the process of growing into a giant in the business. Her influence grew tenfold as the 80s drew to a close, then expanded significantly in the ensuing two decades. Her biggest audience? White housewives!
3. Michael Jordan
The basketball superstar joined the NBA in 1984, but it took him seven years to earn the first of six championships. By then, Jordan had become a cultural giant with massive crossover success. Bolstered by his best-selling Air Jordan sneakers and his awe-inspiring exploits on the court, MJ remains a beloved icon to millions around the world.
4. Michael Jackson
Long before he became “The King of Pop,” Jackson was an incredibly gifted preteen who masterfully fronted his family music group. By age 25, he achieved mind-blowing crossover success with his sixth solo album Thriller.
This was made possible by his innovative and groundbreaking short films which quickly became cultural touchstones. During 1983 and 1984, Jackson’s record-breaking accomplishments and distinctive style skyrocketed his popularity as he crossed racial boundaries like no artist before or since.
5. Barack Obama
Becoming the first U.S. president of African American descent could only be achieved with massive crossover appeal. Obama was nearly flawless in his execution of that task during his 2007–08 presidential campaign.
That’s when he overcame unprecedented roadblocks, racial hatred, and the stigma of 43 previous Caucasian presidents to win the White House. Obama’s obvious assets are his poise, charisma, and oratory skills — but he also inspired hope in millions. And he did it effortlessly.
These are just five of many African Americans who achieved black excellence. Crossover success is far more difficult, but as history continues to be written, there will be more of us who meet that challenge.