As we continue to celebrate inspiring lives, we turn to four phenomenal black women who have succeeded in breaking down barriers. But what are their stories – and what are they doing now?
What do these four have in common?
Each of them has had an inspirational life. Michelle Obama was the first African American First Lady of the USA, while Doreen Lawrence has gained a peerage for her services to society. Bernardine Evaristo is an award-winning author, while Diane Abbott is the longest-serving black MP.
But as well as being highly successful black women, they are also brought together by activism. All four are campaigners for social justice and long-standing champions of equality.
How has Doreen Lawrence changed the world?
Doreen Lawrence has been campaigning for justice since her son, Stephen, was murdered in a racist attack while waiting for the bus in 1993. Initially, five suspects were arrested but not charged. It took almost 20 years for anybody to be jailed for Stephen’s murder.
In the years after her son's death, Lawrence has set up the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust, which works with young people from disadvantaged and underrepresented groups to help them build skills and gain qualifications. She has been awarded an OBE and a Labour peerage. In April, she led a review into the impact of the pandemic on the black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
What has Diane Abbott achieved?
She made British history when she became the first black female MP in 1987. Her journey to election was not easy. Abbott was forced to fight discrimination from within her own party as well as from outside it. She quickly became known for her strength of belief and forthright views, choosing a seat on the green benches once favoured by Enoch Powell.
Thirty-three years on, she is the longest-serving black MP in the House of Commons. Abbott is also an active campaigner. She founded the London Schools and the Black Child initiative, which aims to raise educational achievement levels among black children.
How does Michelle Obama break down barriers?
Michelle LaVaughn Robinson was born in Chicago in 1964. She received a place at at Princeton University, graduating cum laude in 1985. Afterwards, while at Harvard Law School, she demonstrated for the enrolment and hiring of more minority students and professors.
She has worked as a lawyer, city administrator and community-outreach worker, always campaigning for education, equality and social justice. In her final speech as First Lady, she urged the younger generation: “Be focused. Be determined. Be hopeful. Be empowered.”
Last week, Obama used a wedding anniversary message as an opportunity to support democracy. Her Instagram post read, “This year, while we appreciate all your well-wishes, what we’d really love is for each of you to reach out to one person in your life who might not vote.”
How about Bernardine Evaristo?
Last year, the British author became the first black woman to win the prestigious Booker Prize for Girl, Woman, Other.
Evaristo is also a longstanding activist for inclusion in the arts. In 1982, she co-founded Theatre of Black Women, Britain’s first black women’s theatre company. Since then, she has founded several mentoring programmes and agencies. In 2012, she founded the Brunel International African Poetry Prize.
In July, she guest-edited the Sunday Times Style magazine with a black women take-over.
What can we learn from them?
These phenomenal women fought to achieve what they did, facing inequality, discrimination and hate. They have succeeded, each in her own way, in changing the world. As well as this, they continue to campaign for the rights of others. They teach us to work hard, be bold, to stand up for what we believe and to speak out for others who cannot. They truly are inspiring.
- Who is the most inspiring person you know? Why do you look up to them?
- A book, 100 Great Black Britons, has recently been published. Diane Abbott is one of them. Pick another person from this list and research their life and achievements. Write a brief biography of them explaining what makes them inspiring.
- Doreen Lawrence was appointed a life peer, which makes her a Baroness. A life peerage is not inherited, and makes someone a member of the House of Lords.
- The second highest Order of the British Empire award. The OBE is awarded in the Queen’s honours list.
- A report showed that Covid-19 had a disproportionately negative impact on BAME communities.
- Diane Abbott has been a member of the Labour Party since she was a teenager.
- Green benches
- The benches in the House of Commons. They, as well as other furnishings, are green in colour, a custom that goes back 300 years.
- Enoch Powell
- A British politician who became infamous for his inflammatory and divisive “Rivers of Blood” speech.
- Cum laude
- This is a Latin phrase meaning “with praise”. It signifies a university degree given with honour.
- Harvard Law School
- The oldest continuously operating law school in the US and one of the most prestigious law schools in the world. Eight US presidents have graduated from Harvard Law School, including Michelle’s husband, Barack Obama.
- Booker Prize
- An annual prize awarded for the best original novel written in the English language and published in the UK.